Acquitted again by Senate, Trump still a powerful force in Republican politics

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — It is still Donald Trump’s Republican Party — at least for now.

The vote by 43 of the 50 Republican senators to acquit Trump on the charge of inciting last month’s deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol, with only seven voting for conviction, highlights just how powerful a grip he has on the party.

The former president, who has largely stayed out of sight at his Florida home since leaving the White House on Jan. 20, commands fervent loyalty among his supporters, including Republican politicians who want to benefit from his base of supporters.

But after two impeachments, months of false claims that his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden was rigged, and an assault on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters that left five people dead, Trump faces challenges in swing districts that often decide American elections.

That leaves Republicans in a precarious position as they try to forge a winning coalition in the 2022 elections for control of Congress and a 2024 White House race that might include Trump as a candidate.

“It’s hard to imagine Republicans winning national elections without Trump supporters anytime soon,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and aide to Senator Marco Rubio during his 2016 presidential primary race against Trump.

“The party is facing a real Catch 22: it can’t win with Trump but it’s obvious it can’t win without him either,” he said.

Trump has not signaled his long-range political plans for after the trial, although he has publicly hinted at another run for the White House and he is reportedly keen to help primary challengers to Republicans in Congress who voted to impeach or convict him.

“Whether he does run again is up to him, but he’s still going to have an enormous amount of influence on both the direction of the policy and also in evaluating who is a serious standard-bearer for that message,” one adviser said. “You can call it a kingmaker or whatever you want to call it.”

Trump has maintained strong support from Republicans in polls even since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Trump’s defenders in the Senate argued that the trial was unconstitutional because Trump had already left office and that his remarks ahead of the riot were protected by the constitutional right to free speech. But a majority of senators including seven Republicans rejected that view.

Democrats said many Republican senators were afraid to vote with their conscience to convict Trump out of fear of retribution from his supporters.

“If this vote was taken in secret, there would be a conviction,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the Republicans who voted to acquit Trump on Saturday, though he later said the former president was “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the violence.

His position illustrated how some Republican leaders are trying to distance themselves from Trump and limit his influence without triggering the anger of Trump and his supporters.

Trump’s continued sway was evident, however, in House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s visit last month to the former president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, where they huddled on strategy for the 2022 congressional elections.

That visit came just three weeks after McCarthy said Trump bore responsibility for the Capitol riot. McCarthy later backtracked, saying he did not believe Trump provoked the assault.

The few lawmakers who have broken with Trump have suffered backlash.

Representative Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives and one of 10 who voted for Trump’s impeachment, quickly faced an effort by conservatives to remove her from her leadership post. She survived it, but Trump has vowed to throw his support behind a primary challenger to her.

In Arizona, which backed Biden and elected a Democratic senator in November, the state party censured three prominent Republicans who had clashed with Trump while he was in office – Governor Doug Ducey, former Senator Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, widow of the late Senator John McCain.

When Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska was threatened with censure by his state party for criticizing Trump, he suggested it was down to a cult of personality.

“Let’s be clear about why this is happening. It is because I still believe, as you used to, that politics isn’t about the weird worship of one dude,” Sasse said in a video addressed to the party leadership in Nebraska. He was one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump on Saturday.

The fissures have led to an open debate in conservative circles over how far right to lean.

Dozens of former Republican officials, disillusioned by the party’s failure to stand up to Trump, have held talks to form a new center-right party, though multiple congressional Republicans rejected the idea.

Advisers say Trump himself has talked about forming a breakaway Patriot Party, exacerbating Republican divisions.

While Trump maintains control over the party, for now, several Republican senators said during the impeachment trial that the stain left by the deadly siege of the Capitol and Trump’s months of false claims about widespread election fraud would affect his chances of winning power again in 2024. Numerous federal and state courts have rejected Trump’s election fraud claims, including judges the former president appointed and members of his former administration.

“After the American public sees the whole story laid out here … I don’t see how Donald Trump could be reelected to the presidency again,” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who also voted for a conviction, told reporters during the trial.

Republican Senator John Cornyn, a Trump ally, said the former president’s legacy had suffered permanent damage.

“Unfortunately, while President Trump did a lot of good, his handling of the post-election period is what he’s going to be remembered for,” Cornyn said. “And I think that’s a tragedy.”

Reuters contributed to this article, reporting by John Whitesides.

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