During the first trial of Donald Trump, some 13 months ago, the former president commanded near-total fealty from his party. His conservative defenders were ardent and numerous, and Republican votes to convict him — for pressuring Ukraine to help him smear Joe Biden — were virtually nonexistent.
In his second trial, Trump — no longer president — received less ferocious Republican support. His apologists were sparser in number and seemed to lack in enthusiasm. Far fewer conservatives defended the substance of his actions, instead dwelling on technical complaints while skirting the issue of his guilt on the charge of inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
And this time, seven Republican senators voted with 50 Democrats to convict Trump — the most bipartisan repudiation ever delivered in an impeachment process.
Yet the great majority of Republicans refused to find Trump guilty Saturday, leaving the chamber well short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him.
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who startled his party last month with a sharp denunciation of Trump's conduct, voted to acquit, relying on thin procedural arguments. Trump's acquittal stands as a defining moment for the party he molded into a cult of personality, one likely to linger in the eyes of voters and leave a deep blemish in the historical record. Now that Republicans have passed up an opportunity to banish him through impeachment, it is not clear when — or how — they might go about transforming their party into something other than a vessel for a semiretired demagogue who was repudiated by a majority of voters.
Defeated by Biden, stripped of his social-media megaphone, impeached again by the House of Representatives and accused of betraying his oath by a handful of Republican dissenters, Trump remains the dominant force in right-wing politics. Even offline and off camera at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, and offering only a feeble impeachment defense through his legal team in Washington, the former president continues to command unmatched admiration from conservative voters.
Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution scholar and policy adviser to a number of prominent Republican officials, said the GOP had to redefine itself as a governing party with ambitions beyond fealty to a single leader.
"Many Republicans are more focused on talking about him than about what's next, and that's a very dangerous place to be," he said.
Trump's tenure as an agent of political chaos is almost certainly not over. The former president and his advisers have already made plain that they intend to use the 2022 midterm elections as an opportunity to reward allies and mete out revenge to those who crossed Trump. And hanging over the party is the possibility of another run for the White House in three years.
Only a few senior Republicans have gone so far as to say that it is time for Trump to lose his lordly status in the party altogether. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the highest-ranking House Republican to support impeachment, said in a recent television interview that Trump "does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward."
Cheney may be emerging as the de facto leader of anti-Trump forces in the House, and she is certain to face a fierce challenge from the right in her home district next year. While she beat back an effort from Trump loyalists to remove her from her leadership position, five dozen of her Republican colleagues voted to depose her even after a plea from McCarthy to keep her in her post.
Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a longtime Trump ally who has been critical of the former president since the November election, told reporters in the Capitol on Friday that he believed Trump would be weakened by the impeachment trial, even if the Senate opted not to convict him. (Cramer, who previously described the trial as "the stupidest week in the Senate," voted for acquittal.)
"Now, as you can tell, there's some support that will never leave," Cramer said, "but I think that is a shrinking population and probably shrinks a little bit after this week."