When Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor on February 13 to explain his vote to acquit Donald Trump on the House’s article of impeachment, there was understandably a lot of derision about his reasoning that Trump was guilty of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” and was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of” January 6 — but that the Senate couldn’t do anything about it.
McConnell did hint at future criminal and civil liability for Trump’s actions on and before January 6; he may have even known about the impending civil suit by the NAACP that has been joined by House members angry at the violence they faced in the Capitol.
But before we put the impeachment trial behind us, it’s worth taking a look at how many other Republican senators (aside from the seven who voted to convict Trump) followed McConnell in at least criticizing Trump’s conduct, and how many ignored it or even defended it. It could be germane to how high (or low) a hill Trump will have to climb to regain his overwhelming dominant position in the Republican Party, if that’s what he chooses to attempt in the near future.
One of the quirks of the Senate impeachment trial rules is that senators can only say “guilty” or “not guilty” when voting. So it’s customary that most of them make speeches (like McConnell’s) or public statements explaining their votes after the fact.
Fortunately for those trying to understand the impact of the trial on the GOP, Ryan Goodman and Josh Asabor of Just Security wrote a detailed analysis of comments from the 43 Republican senators voting for acquittal. All of them had taken the position that the post-presidential impeachment trial was unconstitutional, though some went out of their way to claim the House impeachment managers hadn’t met the burden of proof with respect to Trump “inciting an insurrection.”
By Just Security’s account, 13 senators (including McConnell) were critical of Trump’s conduct to one degree or another (since their piece came out, one other senator, Tom Cotton, spoke to reporters and was mildly critical of Trump, as he was on and even before January 6); 19 were neutral toward Trump’s conduct, generally by not mentioning it or laying blame on the rioters, if not on Democrats; and 11 were supportive of Trump. Three senators, including the Trumpiest senator of them all, Josh Hawley, have not yet offered public explanations, though the home-state Kansas City Star suggested in an editorial that Hawley need not bother: “The man who raised his fist in support of the mob that raided the Capitol on Jan. 6 was never going to vote against his coconspirator in the Capitol riot.”
Of the Republican senators criticizing Trump, none were quite as categorical as McConnell, but some said things that will not go over well in MAGA country. Shelley Moore Capito called Trump’s conduct “disgraceful,” while Rob Portman and John Thune called it “inexcusable.” Dan Sullivan of Alaska was a bit wordier, saying: “I also condemn former President Trump’s poor judgment in calling a rally on that day, and his actions and inactions when it turned into a riot.” Thom Tillis took a slightly different angle, arguing that “President Trump is most certainly not the victim here; his words and actions were reckless and he shares responsibility for the disgrace that occurred on January 6.”
Republican senators evading the question of Trump’s culpability included Marco Rubio, who released this convoluted sentence: “I voted to acquit former President Trump because I will not allow my anger over the criminal attack of January 6th nor the political intimidation from the left to lead me into supporting a dangerous constitutional precedent.” Rick Scott lectured Democrats on all the important work he was doing while they wasted “everyone’s time and tax dollars.” Ron Johnson managed a plenary fist-shaking while not mentioning Trump at all: “The Democrats’ vindictive and divisive political impeachment is over. While there are still many questions that remain unanswered, I do know neither the Capitol breach nor this trial should have ever occurred.” The comment about the “Capitol breach” is an allusion to the argument that Democrats (not Trump) were primarily responsible for not stopping the riot.
Those actually defending Trump typically did so by way of arguing that the impeachment trial disrespected Trump voters. Here’s Ted Cruz: “Donald Trump used heated language, but he did not urge anyone to commit acts of violence … [T]his impeachment trial did nothing to bring the domestic terrorists who committed this heinous attack to justice. It merely satisfied Democrats’ desire to once again vent their hatred of Donald Trump and their contempt for the tens of millions of Americans who voted for him.” Roger Marshall took false equivalency to the max: “Let me be clear, both sides of the aisle are guilty of heated rhetoric. But, equally guilty are the House Managers and the Democrats for their hypocrisy, and President Trump’s defense team painted that picture clearly.” And Lindsey Graham, probably the mouthiest of pro-Trump senators before and during the trial, was among those calling for an investigation of the January 6 riots, pretty clearly wanting to spread the blame from Trump to Democrats.
The number of Senate Republicans who voted for Trump’s acquittal while either criticizing or at least failing to defend his conduct is reasonably impressive, since all of them supported his reelection, and most of them defended his deranged efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. But it’s sobering to remember how many of them said far stronger things about Trump in the past — most notably his 2016 rivals Cruz, Graham, Rubio, and Rand Paul (who hasn’t made a statement yet) — before eventually, sometimes pathetically, toadying to his every whim later on. Presumably the seven Republicans who did vote to convict him are going to have a hard time acknowledging him in the future as maximum leader if he does attempt a comeback. But for the most part, the rest of them will likely crawl back into his tent once it’s raised.