Lisa Mascarao, Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Saturday acquitted Donald Trump of inciting the horrific attack on the U.S. Capitol, concluding a historic impeachment trial that exposed the fragility of America's democratic traditions and left a divided nation to come to terms with the violence sparked by his defeated presidency.
Barely a month since the deadly Jan. 6 riot that stunned the world, the Senate convened for a rare Saturday session to deliver its verdict, voting while armed National Guard troops continued to stand their posts outside the iconic building.
The quick trial, the nation’s first of a former president, showed how perilously close the invaders had come to destroying the nation's deep tradition of a peaceful transfer of presidential power after Trump had refused to concede the election. Rallying outside the White House, he unleashed a mob of supporters to “fight like hell” for him at the Capitol just as Congress was certify Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. As hundreds stormed the building, some in tactical gear engaging in bloody combat with police, lawmakers fled for their lives. Five people died.
The verdict, on a vote of 57-43, is all but certain to influence not only the former president's political future but that of the senators sworn to deliver impartial justice as jurors. Seven Republicans joined all Democrats to convict, but it was far from the two-third threshold required.
The verdict after the uprising leaves unresolved the nation’s wrenching divisions over Trump's brand of politics that led to the most violent domestic attack on one of America's three branches of government.
“Senators, we are in a dialogue with history, a conversation with our past, with a hope for our future,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa.., one of the House prosecutors in closing arguments.
“What we do here, what is being asked of each of us here in this moment will be remembered. History has found us.”
Trump, unrepentant, welcomed the his second impeachment acquittal and said his movement “has only just begun.” He slammed the trial as “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country.”
Though he was acquitted, it was easily the largest number of senators to ever vote to find a president of their own party guilty of an impeachment charge.
Voting to find Trump guilty were GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania.
The trial had been momentarily thrown into confusion when senators suddenly wanted to consider potential witnesses, an hours-long standoff Saturday that stalled the momentum toward a vote. Prolonged proceedings would be politically risky, particularly for Biden's new presidency and his emerging legislative agenda. The trial came amid the searing COVID-19 crisis, and the Biden White House trying to rush pandemic relief through Congress.
Biden has hardly weighed in on the proceedings and was spending the weekend with family at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland.
Many senators kept their votes closely held until the final moments, Republicans in particularly now thrust into minority status. Democrats took narrow control of the Senate with runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, the day before the siege.
The nearly weeklong trial has delivered a grim and graphic narrative of the riot and its consequences in ways that senators, most of whom fled for their own safety that day, acknowledge they are still coming to grips with.
House prosecutors have argued that Trump’s was the "inciter in chief" stoking a months-long campaign, and orchestrated pattern of violent rhetoric and false claims that unleashed the mob. Five people died, including a rioter who was shot and a police officer.
Trump’s lawyers countered that Trump’s words were not intended to incite the violence and that impeachment is nothing but a “witch hunt” designed to prevent him from serving in office again.
Only by watching the graphic videos — rioters calling out menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the vote tally — did senators say they began to understand just how perilously close the country came to chaos.
Many Republicans representing states where the former president remains popular doubt whether Trump was fully responsible or if impeachment is the appropriate response.
In closing arguments, lead prosecutor Michael van der Veen fell back on the procedural argument that Republican senators have embraced in their own reasoning of the case what he said is a “phony impeachment show trial.”
“Mr. Trump is innocent of the charges against him,” said Michael van der Veen. “The act of incitement never happened.”
The House impeached trump on the sole charge of incitement of insurrection one week after the riot, the most bipartisan vote of a presidential impeachment.
The delay Saturday came as senators wanted to hear evidence about Trump's actions during the riot.
Fresh stories overnight focused onRep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, who said in a statement late Friday that Trump rebuffed a plea from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to call off the rioters.
Fifty-five senators voted for to consider witnesses, including Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mitt Romney of Utah. Once they did, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina changed his vote to join them on the 55-45 vote.
But facing a prolonged trial with defense poised to call many more witnesses, the situation was resolved when Herrera Beutler’s statement on the call was read aloud into the record for senators to consider as evidence. As part of the deal, Democrats dropped their planned deposition and Republicans abandoned their threat to call their own witnesses.
Impeachment trials are rare, senators meeting as the court of impeachment over a president only four times in the nation's history, for Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and now twice for Trump, the only one to be twice impeached.
Unlike last year’s impeachment trial of Trump in the Ukraine affair, a complicated charge of corruption and obstruction over his attempts to have the foreign ally dig up dirt on then-campaign rival Biden, this one brought an emotional punch displayed in graphic videos of the siege that laid bare the unexpected vulnerability of the democratic system.
At the same time, this year's trial carried similar warnings from the prosecutors pleading with senators that Trump must be held accountable because he has shown repeatedly he has no bounds. Left unchecked, he will further test the norms of civic behavior, even now that he is out of office still commanding loyal supporters.
“This trial in the final analysis is not about Donald Trump,” said lead prosecutor Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. "This trial is about who we are.”