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McConnell blames Trump but voted not guilty anyway

Posted February 13, 2021 9:47 a.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2021 4:53 p.m. EST

McConnell votes to acquit Trump in second impeachment trial

— Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed former President Donald Trump on Saturday for inciting last month's riot but voted to acquit him anyway.

McConnell sharply criticized his former ally in a speech on the Senate floor shortly after Trump was acquitted in a 57-43 vote, saying the rioters had been "fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth. Because he was angry he'd lost an election. Former President Trump's actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty."

But McConnell -- who, as Senate majority leader last month, rejected calls by Senate Democrats for a speedy trial during Trump's final days in office -- said impeaching Trump after he left office was not the correct mechanism by which to hold him accountable.

"Impeachment was never meant to be the final forum for American justice," he said.

House impeachment managers had asserted that there should not be a "January exception" for impeachment, contending that it's a crucial tool for Congress to hold the president accountable, and that the pro-Trump riot proved once again that the most dangerous time in a democracy is during the transfer of power. A conviction also would have led to a subsequent vote to disqualify Trump from holding public office again.

The typically tight-lipped Senate Republican leader rarely broke from Trump in his four years as president. But he led the Senate's certification of the presidential election that the rioters pledged to overturn, and strongly condemned the violence at the Capitol he has served in as a senator for 36 years.

Last month, McConnell directly blamed Trump for the riot which killed five people, saying rioters were "provoked by the President and other powerful people."

In a 50-50 Senate, the House impeachment managers -- all of whom are Democrats -- needed to persuade 17 Republican senators to join every member of their party to convict Trump. Seven Republicans voted to convict, but the vote ultimately fell 10 votes shy of the needed two-thirds necessary.

House managers had attempted to tie Trump's words to the violence on January 6, when Congress worked to certify President Joe Biden's victory. They claimed the assault on the Capitol was the culmination of a months-long effort by Trump to prevent the election from being "stolen" from him.

House prosecutors showed clips of Trump's speech before the rampage, in which he urged his supporters to "fight like hell," "never give up" and "never concede." They've presented senators with videos of their colleagues fleeing a pro-Trump mob, which breached the US Capitol shouting "stop the steal." They showed the rioters searching for then-Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and rummaging through the senators' desks on the chamber floor. Some of the Trump supporters were dressed in tactical gear, armed with zip-ties. Others held Trump 2020 flags, broke windows with poles and set up a gallows for Pence.

Rep. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat, directly appealed to McConnell on Saturday without mentioning his name. Neguse quoted two Kentucky legends whom the Senate Republican leader admires, former Sens. Henry Clay and John Sherman Cooper, in thanking the Senate for the "courtesies" showed to the House managers over the past week and in praising the Senate for rising to the occasion in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

He also hearkened back to McConnell's vote as a first-term senator in 1986 to override President Ronald Reagan's veto on legislation imposing economic pressure on South Africa during apartheid.

"There are moments that transcend party politics and that require us to put country above our party because the consequences of not doing so are just too great," Neguse said. "Senators, this is one of those moments."

But despite his pitch, and after witnessing the riot firsthand and being reminded of it again at the scene of the crime, McConnell and most Republican senators voted to acquit Trump. Many said they were concerned about the unprecedented nature of trying a former president in an impeachment trial.

They argued that Trump's words could be protected under the First Amendment, and pointed out that he also urged supporters in his January 6 speech "to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard."

They also said the rioters should be held accountable for their actions but that the former President should not be convicted on the charge of inciting them.

"The Senate's decision today does not condone anything that happened on or before that terrible day," McConnell said on the Senate floor after the vote. "It simply shows that senators did what the former President failed to do. We put our constitutional duty first."

This story has been updated with additional developments Saturday.

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