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'Tribalism is a hell of a drug.' Trump impeachment trial reopens GOP battle lines even as he is acquitted

David Jackson, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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WASHINGTON – Hours before Senate Republicans acquitted Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, a GOP House member nearly knocked it off track.

Senate Republicans had to beat back last-minute Democrat demands to call witnesses after Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash. – who had backed impeachment – said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told her Trump had dismissed pleas for help as his supporters ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The call for witnesses failed, but it didn't take long for Herrera Beutler to become a target of Trump's supporters.

"The gift that keeps on giving to the Democrats. ... The Trump loyal 75 million are watching," tweeted freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a Trump loyalist.

The back-and-forth underscored the internal battle among Republicans, between those who want to continue following Trump and those who believe the party needs to move beyond a disgraced ex-president to win elections.

Trump acquitted, confusion over witnesses: Top takeaways from impeachment trial's last day

A 57-43 majority of the Senate voted to convict Trump, falling short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. Seven Republicans joined the Democrats. Last year, when Trump was acquitted over his dealings with Ukraine, only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, joined Democrats voting to convict.

“Tribalism is a hell of a drug, but our oath to the Constitution means we’re constrained to the facts,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who voted

Even though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voted to acquit, he gave a searing statement on the Senate floor, saying Trump is "practically and morally responsible" for the riot Jan. 6.

In a statement after the acquittal, Trump was undeterred, saying his movement "has only just begun."

"In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people," Trump said. "We have so much work ahead of us, and soon we will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant, and limitless American future."

The aftermath of the impeachment trial, which featured intense videos of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, sets up Republican primary battles between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces, dividing the party as it tries to reclaim control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024.

More: How Donald Trump will be remembered after four tumultuous years as president

Risky business: Donald Trump isn't alone in seeing his political fate tied to his impeachment trial

"This impeachment vote is going to further rend the Republican Party," said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Republicans talk about a "big tent," she said, but "unity will not likely be possible because no meaningful gray area exists" between Trump's followers and other Republicans.

"It seems that the party is headed for many more months of infighting that will only be resolved by the 2022 elections, primary and general elections," she said. "And by resolved, I mean that one faction will likely prevail over the other, but which will win is hard to say."

Trump 2024? Other Republicans are making moves, too

Trump, who stayed silent during the Senate impeachment trial, has not said whether he will run again in 2024, but his acquittal leaves him free to do so.

Republicans mulling their own presidential candidacies – such as Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul – did not even consider conviction in the impeachment trial. They voted against holding the trial at all, saying the Senate lacked the constitutional authority to try someone who is not in office.

"This is a political impeachment," Cruz tweeted during the trial.

Another potential Republican presidential candidate, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, seeks distance from the impeached president.

Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump until 2018, told Politico she expects Trump is "going to find himself further and further isolated,” and she doesn't think he will run for president again: "I think he’s lost any sort of political viability he was going to have."

Other prospective candidates played into Trump's grievances post-election. Cruz and Hawley objected to the counting of Electoral College votes because of Trump's unfounded protests that the election was stolen from him.

Congress was debating that issue when the insurrectionists broke into the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.

Chaos, confusion and anger: What you couldn’t see on the Senate floor

Rubio, who engaged with Trump in a series of brawls during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, has been more supportive of late. Rubio probably has seen reports that Ivanka Trump – Trump's daughter and former White House adviser, who recently moved to Florida – may run for his Senate seat next year.

The Florida senator said before the impeachment trial that it was "arrogant" for opponents to seek the ex-president's disqualification from office.

There's evidence that the insurrection, the impeachment and the trial – and the images of Trump supporters roaming the Capitol halls, threatening lawmakers – are draining Republican support for Trump.

When the House voted in January to impeach Trump, some Republicans saw the Senate trial as a chance to rid themselves of the former president's political influence. Ten House Republicans voted to impeach Trump, more than in his impeachment in 2020.

Still, Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, said, "acquittal means that it's still Trump's party, for better or for worse, and likely for worse."

Mercieca, author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump," said the trial gave Republicans the chance "to reject Trump and Trumpism." Instead, many party members embraced him, she said, perhaps to the party's detriment in the long term.

The first next step: Trump and the 2022 elections

Now that the impeachment trial is behind him, Trump is likely to first test his strength among Republicans in congressional and state elections – including divisive primaries.

Trump and his supporters vowed to back primary challengers against Republicans who supported impeachment, particularly the House Republicans who voted for it.

That target list ranges from Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the House's third-ranked Republican, to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both of whom rejected Trump's demands to reverse the election results.

Impeachment trial puts Trump back in the spotlight: That might not be a good thing for him

More: Donald Trump is unhappy with his legal team, allies say, but still confident he'll be acquitted

Challenging primaries don't always translate to losses.

The Trump factor could hurt Republicans in general elections in states and congressional districts that are closely divided among the GOP, Democrats and independents.

Trump is "still the 800-pound gorilla within the GOP," pollster Frank Luntz said, "but he has no support outside the party." Republicans will need those voters to win enough House and Senate races to reclaim Congress.

Republicans who oppose Trump are preparing to campaign for those who believe the party needs to move on from the impeached president.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who voted for impeachment and created a political action committee, told CNN, "I don't fear the president at all."

Several unknowns could factor into Republicans' future

There are many months before the 2022 congressional elections and the 2024 presidential election. Several outstanding issues could factor into both elections, including possibly more legal trouble for Trump.

Prosecutors in New York are investigating Trump over financial activities. The district attorney's office in Atlanta is investigating whether Trump broke the law when he pressured Raffensberger to "find" enough votes to overturn his election loss to Joe Biden in that state.

The former president will turn 78 years old in 2024, the same age Biden is now. Biden became the oldest president inaugurated when he took the oath in January.

House prosecutors ended their arguments Feb. 11, the third day of former President Donald Trump's historic second impeachment trial.
House prosecutors ended their arguments Feb. 11, the third day of former President Donald Trump's historic second impeachment trial.

During the impeachment trial, House Democratic prosecutors said failing to hold Trump accountable may encourage him and his supporters to attack institutions again, perhaps in a future campaign.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., told senators he is "not afraid of Donald Trump running again in four years." Rather, "I’m afraid he's going to run again and lose, because he can do this again.”

Another unknown is whether Trump supporters can find credible candidates to challenge pro-impeachment Republicans.

Republican strategist Alex Conant, who worked for Rubio's presidential campaign in 2016, said he doubts Trump will be very influential in 2022 and beyond. Most voters, he said, will gradually pull away from the ex-president.

"It'll take time for the party to move on," Conant said. "What happened on Jan. 6 was really bad for the Republican brand. It will take time to recover from that."

Trump and his allies failed in their attempt to have Cheney removed from her post as House Republican Conference chairwoman. But in the same meeting, Republicans refused to punish pro-Trump Rep. Taylor Greene over her social media posts about conspiracy theories and threats to political opponents.

Political analysts noted that both Trump backers and Trump opponents have discussed the idea of a third political party, a development that would further split the party.

Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said most GOP voters still appear supportive of Trump. "As long as Republican voters stay with Trump," he said, "so will most Republican leaders."

The author of “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump," Pitney illustrated the Republicans' problem by reworking the lyrics of a Pete Seeger protest song about the Vietnam War.

"The party is waist deep in the Big Muddy," he said. "and the base says to push on."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment trial reignites GOP battle even as he is acquitted