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Senate Acquits Trump: Key Takeaways From Impeachment Trial

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start this hour with historic news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK LEAHY: It is therefore ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump - he is hereby acquitted of the charge in said article.

MARTIN: That is Senator Patrick Leahy, the president pro tem of the Senate, declaring Trump's impeachment trial over. A majority of senators today voted to convict Trump - 57-43, including seven Republicans. But two-thirds, or 67 votes, was needed to convict. It was the second time Trump was acquitted in an impeachment trial.

The former president's acquittal comes more than a month after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers were counting the electoral results that certified Trump's loss. Five people died in the riot, including a police officer, and two other officers later died by suicide. We're joined now by NPR senior political correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

Domenico, welcome. Thank you for being here.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Seven Republicans voted with Democrats to convict Trump. Ultimately, that wasn't enough. But what struck you about the seven?

MONTANARO: Yeah, it was a remarkable day. I mean, Trump was acquitted because they didn't get the two-thirds required for conviction, but seven Republicans is more than we were expecting. The seven Republicans were, we should say, 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 Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

I mean, what was surprising here were Burr and Cassidy. The others had signaled they might vote to convict Trump and have been pretty vocal critics of the president over the past few years, although Romney was the only one, if I remember, who voted for Trump's impeachment a year ago. Burr has said he won't be running for reelection in 2022, so that might help his case. And Cassidy was reelected this past fall. He showed some cracks earlier in the week with his loyalty toward Trump because he voted to say that the trial was constitutional. That was a shift from a vote before the trial.

And before Trump's team made their defense, I was really interested to hear Cassidy said he had two particular questions he wanted answered from the Trump team. What did the president know about the danger Pence was in, and what did he do about it - as well as, how does he defend this widespread fraud, this false narrative that led thousands of his constituents to believe that one company was responsible for basically blowing the election for Trump? We really, to my ear, didn't hear anything defending those.

MARTIN: And remarkably, after the vote, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell voted against Trump's conviction. But he took the extraordinary step of blaming him for what happened on January 6. I just want to play a little bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: This was an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters' decision or else torch our institutions on the way out. The unconscionable behavior did not end when the violence actually began.

MARTIN: Here's why I call that extraordinary, Domenico - that was precisely the impeachment manager's argument.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So why did he vote the other way?

MONTANARO: Boy, it sure sounded point for point to a lot of the points that the impeachment managers were making. He makes kind of a technical point where he says the president was out of office, so he doesn't think it's constitutional for a former president to be tried in the first place. But you remember a majority of the senators said that it was constitutional. McConnell was in - among the group of people who voted to say it was unconstitutional. And he believes that removal is mandatory rather than disqualification being an equal piece of the Constitution to what the penalty can be for conviction for impeachment.

You know, but part of - the thing that's kind of ironic here is that part of the reason why there was no trial and why it's happening with Trump out of office is because McConnell didn't call the Senate back in session to hold one.

Now, it's more complicated than just that. There could have been an objection by any of the members of - you know, who are friendly to Trump that may have mucked things up a little bit. You might not have had an emergency trial as, you know, Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, had wanted. But still, he didn't do a whole lot to bring them back.

MARTIN: So the former president still doesn't have access to what had been his favorite platform, Twitter. So how has he responded to his acquittal? How have we heard about it?

MONTANARO: My goodness, we had to get it over email. Like, talk about something from, like, you know, five years ago or something (laughter), you know? We got an email from the president who essentially called - dismissed this as another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country. He said there's more work to do.

You know, but I have to say, 57 is not a small number. You know, it's not 67, but 57 - if you were to say that 57% of people were in favor of something, you'd say that's a pretty strong majority, especially in these polarized times.

And, you know, it's amazingly - it's also kind of reflected in what the polls had shown going into this, something like 56% of people saying that they were in favor of President Trump's conviction and, like I said, moved a couple of Republicans who, you know, wanted to be favorable toward the president. And I think it's a real indictment of the kind of case that Trump's lawyers presented. You know, it was pretty preordained. And had they stuck to this narrow constitutional argument, they might have had more votes.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, we have about a minute left. I am interested in your analysis of what you think this trial portends for the parties or for the prime actors here going forward.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's - well, it's tough to say what it's going to be like and what's going to wind up happening here because it's an open question. You know, I think that there are a lot of things, you know, that are going to take place over the next several years. We know that Watergate, for example, was something that really redefined our politics for the modern era. How is this trial going to reshape things as they go forward?

And how will independents line up? I think there's a real crackup that's happened that's been solidified with this trial, with, you know, whites who are without a college degree culturally lining up with Republicans and whites and other college-educated demographic groups who live in suburbs who have now moved more strongly toward Democrats. And with the reshaping of these congressional districts, you wonder how that's going to change, how that's going to take shape and what the rules are going to be going forward.

MARTIN: That is NPR senior political correspondent Domenico Montanaro reporting on this - the remarkable events of today.

Domenico, thank you so much.

MONTANARO: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.