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An Unusually Bipartisan Impeachment Vote Leaves A Deeply Divided Nation

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Last night, President Joe Biden released a statement reacting to the impeachment vote in the Senate, saying, quote, "this sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile." He went on to say this - each one of us has a duty and responsibility as Americans and especially as leaders to defend the truth and defeat the lies. Joining us now is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'll put the same question to you that I just put to the congresswoman. With Trump acquitted as expected, what did this impeachment trial accomplish?

LIASSON: I think the impeachment managers did accomplish creating a narrative of how the Trump presidency will be remembered. They kind of wrote the last chapter of the history books of the Trump administration, where the president encouraged a mob to impede the peaceful transfer of power. I think that will probably stick.

What they didn't accomplish was to convict and prevent Trump from running again. And that left the impression that Congress as a whole - even though a majority of senators voted to convict, Congress as a whole doesn't think it's terrible when the president encourages his supporters to try to overturn a free and fair election, that Congress thinks that's OK when a president does that, even when they themselves were attacked.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, I'm going to play some more of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made this point about the former president's actions and the arguments made by his allies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Anyone who decries his awful behavior is accused of insulting millions of voters. That's an absurd deflection. Seventy-four million Americans did not invade the Capitol. Hundreds of rioters did. Seventy-four million Americans did not engineer the campaign of disinformation and rage that provoked it. One person did - just one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's an extraordinary statement by Mitch McConnell, yet he voted to acquit. Help us understand this calculation.

LIASSON: Yeah, it really was a huge disconnect. He said this was a disgraceful dereliction of duty. Remember, McConnell is the one who refused to hold the trial while Trump was in office, then turned around and said it was unconstitutional to try a president who was out of office. So it sounds like McConnell's calculations are pretty similar to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who was trying to make the Republican tent big enough to hold Trump critic Liz Cheney and QAnon conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene. It shows you that Trump still has a very firm grip on his party. As his lawyers reminded the senators, quote, "no one in this chamber is anxious to have a primary challenge," which is what Trump has threatened to do to any Republicans who oppose him. So I think those are McConnell's political calculations. He's trying to have it both ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Seven Republican senators did not see it as McConnell did - Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski. It's not surprising they voted to convict. It was always clear they were going to do so - but also Bill Cassidy, Pat Toomey and Richard Burr.

LIASSON: That's right. I think every - these people broke with their party. But remember, of those seven Republican senators, only one of them, Murkowski of Alaska, faces reelection in 2022. Two others, Toomey and Burr, are retiring. And three of them - Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Bill Cassidy - were reelected just last year. Mitt Romney doesn't face reelection until 2024. So not huge political risks on the part of these seven, but still, seven is more Republican votes than most people were expecting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just briefly, McConnell also made this point. The former president is still legally liable for actions taken while he was in office. What does that mean for any plans Trump has politically?

LIASSON: Well, that's true. He said former presidents are not immune from criminal prosecution or civil suits. But this leaves so many questions unanswered. What will count more over time, the acquittal or the bipartisan vote? What happens to the Republican Party over time? It's deeply, deeply split over this. It's - Republican voters are leaving the party. Will that trend continue? Their approval ratings are going down. And we don't know what Trump plans to do and what kind of hold he's going to have on his party and for how long.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. He's talking about forming possibly a third party. That is...

LIASSON: Well, he doesn't have to do that. He's got the Republican Party. The party would be formed by his opponents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you, as always.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.