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Impeachment trial created a test that (most) Republicans flunked

Trump narrowly won a game that was rigged in advance in his favor. He may have been acquitted, but he was not exonerated.
Joint Session Of Congress Held To Confirm Presidential Election Result
Lawmakers attend a joint session of Congress to count the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election in the House Chamber in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The House and Senate resumed a politically charged debate over the legitimacy of the presidential election hours after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and drove lawmakers from their chambers. Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Donald Trump spent months lying to unwitting followers about the integrity of their own electoral system. Once it was obvious that he'd been soundly defeated, Trump launched a comprehensive scheme to nullify election results he didn't like, in the hopes that he could keep power he hadn't earned.

The gambit culminated in the Republican dispatching a violent mob to launch a deadly insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, in the hopes that the violence would disrupt the legal process and allow Trump to remain in office, the will of the American electorate be damned. It was, by most measures, the most serious crime ever committed by a sitting American president.

Within a few days of the attack, as many as 20 Senate Republicans were reportedly "open" to convicting the former president. Ultimately, the actual number proved to be much smaller.

The Senate on Saturday acquitted former President Donald Trump in a 57-43 vote in his second impeachment trial. The vote came on the fifth day of trial after the House impeached Trump last month on a charge of incitement of insurrection for his role in the deadly attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. There were seven Republican senators who voted in favor of conviction, short of the 67 total votes needed to bar Trump from running for public office again.

Broadly speaking, there are a couple of ways to see the final outcome. Though the two perspectives are largely contradictory, they're also both true.

The first points to a process that was itself a political catastrophe. Donald Trump incited a riot for the most pernicious of reasons: his authoritarian desire to put his pursuit of power above our democracy. It cost the nation dearly -- both in lives lost and weakening the foundation of the republic -- and the case against the former president was overwhelming. Trump's guilt was not seriously in doubt.

But for 86% of Senate Republicans, underlying principles -- the value of the evidence, the importance of the truth and the rule of law, the responsibility of "jurors" to do their duty with honor -- were easily dismissed niceties. Many of the GOP senators whose lives were put in danger on Jan. 6 were the same senators who agreed, once again, to express indifference to Trump's willingness to embrace violence to achieve his goals.

This impeachment trial was not merely an opportunity for Republican officials to act responsibly; it was also a chance for GOP lawmakers to put President Madness behind them and set their party on a more sensible and less radical course.

As Americans saw on Saturday afternoon, however, most Republicans didn't care -- about evidence, justice, propriety, or moving beyond their corrupt leader.

A New York Times analysis added over the weekend, "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."

By all appearances, transforming the party in the post-Trump era simply isn't a priority for the contemporary GOP. Too many Republicans are quite content with the status quo, even if that means betraying their oaths and their commitment to our constitutional system of government.

But as important as these truths are, there is another way of looking at the latest developments.

As a political fight comes to an end, there's a difference between surviving and thriving. Yes, Trump prevailed, to the extent that the final outcome was the one he sought, but he narrowly won a game that was rigged in advance in his favor.

Trump may have been acquitted, but he was not exonerated.

On the contrary, while the final tally was obviously important, so too is the fact that a bipartisan majority in the U.S. House impeached him, and then another bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate voted to convict him.

This was not, strictly speaking, a Democratic effort. In the lower chamber, 10 Republicans, including a member of the House GOP leadership, agreed with their Democratic counterparts that the former president needed to be held accountable for his indefensible actions. In the upper chamber, seven Republicans voted the same way -- easily the largest number of senators in any impeachment trial to vote to convict a president of their own party.

A Washington Post analysis described it as "an incomparable historic rebuke of a president by his own party." In fact, even some of those who voted to acquit Trump went out of their way to denounce his misconduct and make clear that the failed former president should not see acquittal as an exoneration.

Ahead of the verdict, there were some who believed that the Republican Party was so far gone, so loyal to Trump's orders, so stuck in the right-wing fever swamp, and so fearful of conservative media and the party's rabid base, that zero GOP senators would have the courage to do the right thing. But in the end, seven did -- six more than the record for "jurors" voting against a president of their own party -- laying waste to the idea that the trial was itself nothing more than a partisan exercise.

So as the dust settles, which is it? Did Americans see a radicalized and unprincipled political party tolerate a dangerous would-be autocrat who swung a sledgehammer at his own country's democracy? Or did we see a failed former president suffer a brutal bipartisan rebuke, adding one last permanent stain to Trump's scandal-plagued tenure?

Despite the obvious tensions between the points, we managed to see both.