Politics

The Senate’s Awful Reasons for Acquitting Trump

About 15 Republicans rejected the impeachment case on the merits. Their arguments were atrocious.

Lindsey Graham talking to reporters
Sen. Lindsey Graham at the Capitol on Saturday. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Once again, Donald Trump has escaped conviction. On Saturday, despite plenty of evidence that he had incited the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, 43 senators voted to acquit him in his second impeachment trial. That was enough to get Trump off the hook—a two-thirds majority was needed to convict him—but it blurs important differences among those who acquitted him. Twelve of them, while voting against conviction because Trump was no longer president, explicitly deplored his behavior or assigned him some blame for the attack. One of the 12, Sen. Rob Portman, said Trump had violated his oath of office. Another, Sen. Thom Tillis, held out the option to convict him if a more “thorough” case were presented. These 12 senators, combined with the 57 who voted to convict, formed a two-thirds majority to condemn the former president.

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That leaves 31 senators who declined to convict or condemn Trump. How impervious are they to his misconduct? A dozen of them have stuck to the jurisdictional argument—that former presidents can’t be convicted—or have kept silent about why they voted for acquittal. But a review of statements, tweets, and interviews suggests that about half of the 31 senators are hardcore apologists. To excuse Trump’s incitement and treachery, they lied, fudged, or concocted smears on his behalf. Here’s how they rationalized their votes.

1. The evidence is fake. House impeachment managers documented their case with hours of video, as well as written comments from Trump and the Capitol assailants. Nevertheless, some senators refuse to accept any of it. “The entire House managers’ case is based on hearsay,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. “The trial record was a complete joke,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. Even after Trump’s lawyers agreed to admit as evidence a written statement from a Republican congresswoman about an incriminating conversation with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, Graham dismissed her account.

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2. Trump did nothing wrong. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith claimed that Trump’s speech to a crowd of supporters in Washington just before the attack—in which he said they had to “fight” to stop the imminent certification of electoral votes in Congress, because the legal system had failed to do so—“neither implicitly nor explicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action.” Sen. Tim Scott added, “The one person I don’t blame for that situation is President Trump.” Graham, when he was asked whether Trump bore “any responsibility for the attack,” replied, “No.” Cruz said he and most other Republican senators also opposed any attempt to censure Trump, because Democrats, having impeached the former president, “shouldn’t get two bites at the apple.”

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3. Democrats are the real culprits. Many Republican senators said Trump’s call to “fight” was no worse than speeches from Democrats urging their supporters to “fight” in other contexts. The senators ignored evidence that Trump, unlike other politicians, had orchestrated a physical confrontation on a specific day and had explicitly endorsed violence leading up to it. “Whatever we heard from President Trump, we had been hearing from Democrats for years,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley. Sen. Rand Paul made the same false claim: “The Democrats have done exactly the same thing.”

Senators went to fantastic lengths to shift blame. “The trial itself was incitement,” Sen. Ron Johnson declared preposterously. Cruz went after Vice President Kamala Harris for having helped to bail out police-violence protesters from jail. “Kamala’s behavior was worse” than Trump’s, said Cruz. When a Fox News interviewer asked about Trump’s failure to stop the Jan. 6 attack, despite pleas from besieged members of Congress, Sen. Roger Marshall shot back: “The real question is, what did Nancy Pelosi know?”

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4. Blaming Trump is divisive.The first chance I get to vote to end this trial, I’ll do it,” Sen. Marco Rubio pledged after Trump was impeached. Rubio said it was unhealthy to “revisit this all and stir it up again,” because it would “fuel these divisions that have paralyzed the country.” When an interviewer asked whether the Senate should bar Trump from becoming president again, Rubio said it would be “arrogant” to do so. “Who are we to tell voters who they can vote for?” he asked.

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5. Impeachment was a partisan scam. Many senators dismissed the case as pure “rage,” “hatred,” and “retribution.” They called it “political theater,” a “show trial,” a “made-up political persecution,” and a “continuation of the four-year impeachment fixation.” Others warned that if Trump were convicted, it would set a precedent for using impeachment to “exact political revenge” and “settle political scores.” At least 15 Republicans, including three in the party’s Senate leadership—Rick Scott, Roy Blunt, and Joni Ernst—made some version of this argument.

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6. Impeachment was an attack on Trump voters. To shield the former president, senators portrayed any scrutiny of him as an attempt to “shame” and “humiliate” his supporters. Democrats “want to silence … half of this country, and they’re trying to use an illegitimate proceeding to do that,” said Sen. Josh Hawley. Sen. John Kennedy called the trial “a poorly camouflaged attempt” to smear “the 75 million people” who had voted for Trump. “The real purpose of this trial,” said Rubio, was “to tar and feather … anyone who supported” Trump.

7. We must stand with Trump no matter what. Several senators, including GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso, noted Trump’s popularity in the party and urged Republicans to stick together. When Graham was asked about the argument that Trump, leading up to the attack on the Capitol, “went down a path he shouldn’t have,” the senator rejected that criticism as “wrong.” “I’m sorry [about] what happened on Jan. 6,” Graham told Sean Hannity, but “we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of taking back the majority without Donald Trump.” Addressing the former president, Graham effused: “You own the Republican Party, my friend.”

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8. Anyone who denounces Trump must be denounced. Graham and Johnson repeatedly castigated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for objecting to Trump’s conduct. In radio interviews over the weekend, Johnson said McConnell should “zip his lip” because his criticism of Trump “divides the Republicans.” Johnson also repudiated the Jan. 6 speech in which McConnell criticized Trump for lying about the election results. Meanwhile, in Fox News interviews, Graham complained that McConnell had “put a load on the back of Republicans” by making anti-Trump statements, to which other Republican senators would now have to respond.

These are pernicious arguments. But only 20 senators, at most, have invoked them. Within that group, there’s a hard core of about 15 Republicans who have reached for any excuse, denounced any criticism of Trump, or concocted smears to deflect the evidence against him. It’s a shameful nest of apologists. But it’s a lot fewer than 43.

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