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PATRICK LEAHY: The yeas are 57. The nays are 43. Two-thirds of the senators present not having voted guilty, the Senate adjudges that the respondent Donald John Trump, former president of the United States, is not guilty as charged in the article of impeachment.
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.
DETROW: And it is 5:35 Eastern on Saturday, February 13. As you just heard, the Senate has once again acquitted former President Trump in an impeachment trial. The vote was 57 to 43 to convict. Seven Republicans joined the Senate Democratic caucus to convict, but that was 10 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed.
I'd like to hear what you all have to say about this. Are you dwelling more on the fact that he was acquitted or the fact that seven Republicans voted to convict, making this the most bipartisan Senate impeachment trial ever? Sue, let's start with you.
DAVIS: I mean, I think we knew from the beginning that a conviction was unlikely. So in that way, it wasn't a surprise. But seven, to be honest, was the high end of what I was anticipating. I think there was very few surprises in this. You know, six of the seven were the same six Republicans who voted to agree with Democrats that the Senate had the authority to have a trial, that it was constitutional. And one of the surprises was Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who's retiring and not running for reelection again, and in his statement, he said he didn't believe that the trial was constitutional, but once the Senate voted to continue with it and set a precedent saying it was, that he believed the evidence proved that Trump was guilty of incitement of insurrection for the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
ELVING: Scott, we should also say that that five of these seven Republicans had some degree of natural protection, you could call it. Two of them are retiring at the end of this Congress. They'll be out in 2022 anyway. They don't have to face Republican primary voters again. And then three others just got a fresh deck, just got six years of a brand-new term at the election of 2020. And the other two, Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, they've pretty much already gone on record as critics of Donald Trump.
DETROW: And, Ayesha, before we get to your impressions on this, I'm just going to list off all of the Republicans who voted guilty - Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, Susan Collins from Maine, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, Mitt Romney from Utah, Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, Ben Sasse from Nebraska and, that surprise seventh vote, Richard Burr of North Carolina. So, Ayesha, what stood out to you here?
RASCOE: Well, I think - just stepping all the way back here - is that, you know, this was the second time that President Trump was impeached, which in and of itself is historic, to have a president impeached twice. One thing that in that first impeachment trial that former President Trump seemed very proud of was the fact that everyone held the line other than Mitt Romney. But he cannot say that at this point. This was a number of Republicans, including in the House when they voted for impeachment, the third, you know, in line in leadership, Republican in leadership, Liz Cheney voting against him, and now seven Republicans in the Senate. This is a very different outcome, although obviously he was not removed from office and not barred from office. But he did not hold the line the way he did before.
DETROW: As newsy, as remarkable as those seven Republican guilty votes were, once senators began explaining their votes on the Senate floor, once the trial ended, we heard from Mitch McConnell who voted to acquit. And yet, if you listen to his speech, at least the first half of it, you had to go back and look over your notes and say, did I get it wrong? Did Mitch McConnell vote guilty? Here's a moment from a speech that got a lot of attention, to put it mildly.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: There's no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day - no question about it. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.
DETROW: Sue, we waited a long time for the however-pivot.
DETROW: It finally did come. What was the however-pivot, and what was McConnell trying to do here?
DAVIS: You know, McConnell fell back on the constitutional argument. He said he simply did not believe that the Senate had the constitutional authority to have a trial of a former officeholder, but pretty plainly in those remarks said he did believe that President Trump was singularly responsible for the events of January 6 and condemned him for the months leading up to it in which he fueled and fed conspiracy theories about the election.
You know, that was a speech that I think, you know, is going to get a lot of attention, and maybe it's not going to be pleasing to quite anyone. It seems like one of those speeches that's going to leave something for everybody to be angry about. You know, you hear Democrats immediately saying, if you felt this way, why didn't you start the trial earlier, right? You know, the Senate was still controlled by Republicans when the House impeached, and McConnell made it clear that the Senate wasn't going to come back into session. I think we're going to hear that a lot in the coming days.
Couple things to consider about that - you know, they would have needed unanimous consent. They would have needed all the senators to agree to come back and start it early, which McConnell didn't have. Chuck Schumer tried to get him to use these emergency powers to bring the Senate back in. He declined to do that. But even if he did, they still would have needed to write the resolution that would have set the guidelines for the trial, which, as we saw today, still a huge number of Trump loyalists in the Senate that could have really dragged out that process.
So I'm not entirely convinced that it's possible that this trial could have happened before the inauguration, but it's certainly something that I think Democrats are going to really beat the drum about, that Mitch McConnell is trying to have it both ways, which is exactly what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said shortly after his remarks.
ELVING: And in a sense, he did get to have it both ways - didn't he? - because he got to vote with the majority of his party, which is necessary if you want to remain the leader of your party. You don't want to have a rebellion against you on the part of some of those 43 senators who were voting to acquit the president. And then on top of that, he also got to have four, five, six minutes of really having his retribution for all those times in the last four years that he has not been eager to defend Donald Trump. He has not felt good about it. There have been times he's refused to answer questions, even about sitting President Trump, and you know he was boiling a lot of that time. You could see it on his face, and today he finally had a chance to let some of it out.
DETROW: Ayesha, it has been a Trump-free few weeks. He, of course, does not have his Twitter feed. But he has kept to himself since he flew down to Mar-a-Lago. What has the former president said now that he's been acquitted?
RASCOE: Well, he put out a written statement, basically taking a victory lap, you know, thanking his legal team, thanking his supporters and, you know, once again blasting Democrats, saying that this, you know, impeachment and the trial was, quote, "another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country." So he definitely lashed out and then also said, this is the beginning - just the beginning of his movement, so making clear that he is going to stay on the scene, whether Mitch McConnell or anybody else likes it or not. What you did not see in this statement, though, is anything resembling any type of regret or, you know, just saying maybe he could have done anything differently about January 6. In fact, there's no mention of January 6, the insurrection, the deaths, the violence - none of that is mentioned in his statement.
DETROW: All right, there's a lot more to talk about. I'm proud to say the NPR POLITICS PODCAST has now covered half of the presidential impeachment trials in American history.
DETROW: So we're going to take a quick break in our annual impeachment trial wrap-up podcast and be right back.
And we're back. And at the time it was happening, it would blow my mind that we could summarize this in, like, 20 or 30 seconds because we spent two hours analyzing it on the air, but there was a plot twist today at the beginning of the proceedings. We had not expected either side to try and call witnesses. Jamie Raskin, the lead House manager, did try to call a witness, and then all hell broke loose in the Senate for a while. Sue, can you explain what happened, why he wanted to do it and, as you and Kelsey put it, the most Senate of all Senate conclusions to this drama?
DAVIS: (Laughter) So at the end of the initial arguments, it was called for in the trial that they could make a motion to call witnesses. Nobody expected the House impeachment managers to do this. Democratic senators, Republican senators walking in that day thought they were going to go right - after closing arguments, go right to the vote. Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, surprised everybody, putting forth a motion calling for witnesses and saying that they wanted to hear from Jaime Herrera Beutler.
She's a Republican congresswoman from Washington, and she had very publicly recounted this episode in which Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, told several Republican lawmakers, including her, that on January 6, he had a phone call with Donald Trump, and he was asking Donald Trump to sort of do his part to secure the Capitol and call off the rioters. And Trump said to him - and she says, quote - "well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are" - the meaning of that, obviously, suggesting that the president was aware of the violence and not doing anything to stop it. And this caused a huge dust-up because in the Senate trial, once you open the door to witnesses, it opens the door for the defense team to call witnesses, too.
DETROW: So this is debated. The Senate goes into recess to figure this out. The Senate comes back, and they say, after all of these big threats, OK, we're just going to read Herrera Beutler's statement into the record and move on.
DETROW: Ron, was this a mistake from the Democrats to open this door and then retreat, especially after the Senate voted on this and 55 senators said, yeah, let's hear witnesses?
ELVING: It possibly could be read that way, and certainly there are some people among progressives who feel like the trial should have been driven further, that they should have called multiple witnesses and call the Republicans' bluff and say, really? You want to bring all those people in? You want to hear what they have to say? Because you may not be able to control what they say, and many of them are going to say things you don't want to hear. So the question was whether or not they wanted to have another week or two or three of trial or whether they wanted to get out of town this weekend the way they had planned to. In the end, you have to ask the question - how many of those 43 votes would you have changed?
ELVING: If you had this trial drag on for another week, another two weeks, another three weeks, would you have whittled down that 43?
DAVIS: Probably not.
DETROW: Yeah, maybe there were two or three senators I thought might have possibly voted guilty who didn't on the Republican side. Let's spend a couple of minutes on the closing arguments. One standout moment to me on the Democratic side was Joe Neguse, Colorado congressman, pretty young - and he was incredibly impressive this entire trial, and he really seemed to move a lot of lawmakers in the chamber and a lot of people watching with his closing argument. Let's listen to a moment of that.
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JOE NEGUSE: I was struck yesterday by defense counsel's continued references to hate. One of my favorite quotes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - it's one that has sustained me during times of adversity. I suspect it's sustained some of you - is that I've decided to stick with love, that hate is too great a burden to bear. This trial is not born from hatred - far from it. It's born from love of country, our country.
DETROW: And that was a direct response to an ongoing theme that you heard from a lot of Republican defenders of the former president and from Trump's defense team, including Michael van der Veen, that this was all about Democrats trying to get Trump, even to the point of going after him after he had left office.
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MICHAEL VAN DER VEEN: In short, this impeachment has been a complete charade from beginning to end. The entire spectacle has been nothing but the unhinged pursuit of a long-standing political vendetta against Mr. Trump by the opposition party. As we have shown, Democrats were obsessed with impeaching Mr. Trump from the very beginning of his term.
RASCOE: And it should be said that that yes, obviously, Democrats have, you know, been very critical of President Trump from the start. But it also has to be said that former President Trump was not a regular president. He was what he called - what? - post-presidential, modern, whatever.
DETROW: (Laughter) Yeah.
RASCOE: But his behavior was not like any other politician ever seen before. So the animus or whatever other - the opposition may have felt about him, President Trump did not behave in the way that other presidents behaved, and that likely played a big role in him being impeached twice.
DETROW: Let's end it on this. There were a lot of appeals to history, a lot of calls from both sides presenting their cases, saying how you vote is going to be noticed, is going to affect future generations. What are you taking out of this trial going forward? And what will you be thinking about as we maybe wrap up the Trump era at this point, with this trial a month after he left office?
DAVIS: You know, I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating in that I think January 6 was a unique event in America in that, in the modern era, when there's been attacks on our government or attacks on lawmakers, afterward they've often been a time of unity. Now, that's been short-term unity, but if you think after 9/11 or after Gabby Giffords was shot, the former congresswoman from Arizona, or after the congressional baseball shooting - when the Congress itself was threatened, the Congress rallied around each other. And that didn't happen here.
And if anything, I think the atmosphere on Capitol Hill following January 6 is more partisan and more poisonous, frankly. And you have Democrats who fundamentally, especially in the House, just don't trust members across the aisle. They've put up metal detectors outside of the House chamber following this event. Speaker Pelosi has basically said they don't trust Republican lawmakers to feel safe around them. In the Senate, you know, I just think that this vote and the, you know, animosity they feel towards Republicans who they think know better and voted for their own political safety is really going to leave a bitter effect in this Congress.
And I think it's going to be really hard to move past it. I think this - all this talk of bipartisanship in the Biden era is going to be really hard for the president to find. And I think it's been a defining event for the political era in how our politics - you know, the sort of relations and the poisonous nature of our politics right now.
DETROW: Ron, Ayesha - what do you think?
ELVING: Scott, I would say that this impeachment trial obliterates the first Trump impeachment trial. People are not going to remember the Ukraine phone call. They're not going to remember all those weeks and all those details. What they're going to remember is the impeachment of Donald Trump for his role in January 6. And just as Susan described, January 6 is going to live on because we had videotape, because we saw and saw and saw the violence of these rioters, these insurrectionists, the things they were saying about what they were going to do to members of Congress - I think this is going to live on in a different way and be a very large part of the overall Trump legacy.
DETROW: I am at actual NPR this week for covering the trial. And I went up to my desk, and on my desk I found the memo from that Ukraine call sitting there. And I was like, wow, this is an artifact from the past at this point.
ELVING: Seems almost like trivia.
RASCOE: I have to say, I think the big thing that I took from this, both of the impeachment trials, speaking of both impeachment trials - you know, everyone has been talking about, you know, what will happen? What - if you convict, is this a slippery slope? I think the bigger question for me is, after this, what is actual impeachable conduct? You know, I think after Nixon, there was this idea that there - if a president took certain actions, there were certain things that you just cannot do because you can be impeached, and you will be removed from office.
At this point in time, I am not clear on what action a president could take that would actually lead to his removal from office as long as he has a base of political support. And I do wonder, in the years coming ahead, will other politicians take a lesson from this, that as long as you have a significant or enough power within your party, you are pretty much able to do a lot more than what - than I think that people thought a president could get away with before all of this happened.
DETROW: Yeah, I just truly wonder - and I don't know the answer - whether the most bipartisan impeachment ever wins the day or that he was acquitted two times in a row is what wins the day. And we won't have that answer for a very long time.
But that is it for our coverage, our second annual impeachment trial coverage here on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. Thank you for sticking with us through this trial, through this process. Have a great rest of the weekend. We will be back in your feeds on Monday. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.
RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.
DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving. And I want to wish you all a happy Valentine's Day.
DAVIS: Thank you, Ron.
RASCOE: Aww, that's very nice.
DETROW: Happy Valentine's Day to you, Ron. And happy Valentine's Day to all of our editors and producers who were listening along with us and pulling cuts and writing scripts and...
RASCOE: And not planning their Valentine's Day weekend.
DAVIS: And apologies to all of our actual valentines that we didn't get you anything because we were covering an impeachment.
DETROW: We will not be covering the impeachment tomorrow, though. So we got that going for us. Thanks to them, and thanks to all of you, our listeners, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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