WASHINGTON ― Senators voted on Wednesday to acquit President Donald Trump of abuse of power ― without first hearing from witnesses or examining new documents in his impeachment trial, and even though some Republicans agreed the president had done exactly what he was accused of.
The final vote on the first article of impeachment was 48-52, far short of the supermajority needed to convict.
On the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress, the Senate acquitted Trump by a vote of 47-53. (Romney voted to acquit this time.)
The two votes proceeded solemnly, with senators doing much less fidgeting than they’d displayed during the previous two weeks of the trial. As the clerk called their name, each senator rose, buttoned their jacket, and then said either “guilty” or “not guilty.”
In the end, Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate a political rival ahead of the 2020 election, blocked Congress in its efforts to investigate his actions and was still given the OK by the Senate.
He becomes the third president in U.S. history to be acquitted after being impeached in the House. But Trump has his own distinction: He is the only president to go through a Senate impeachment trial that heard from no witnesses.
Democrats have said that his acquittal will always have an asterisk: He is staying in office, but only because the process was rigged in his favor from the start.
The vote was not surprising. Most GOP senators had indicated before the trial even began that they planned to let Trump off the hook. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in December that he was “not an impartial juror.”
Ahead of the vote on Wednesday, McConnell said the impeachment case was “incoherent” and reduced it to a “conspiracy theory.” And he complained about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi questioning the legitimacy of the Senate trial due to its lack of witnesses.
“Perhaps she will tear up the verdict like she tore up the State of the Union address,” McConnell said.
By acquitting the president, the Senate would fulfill its constitutional obligation to serve as the more stable counterbalance to the House of Representatives, the majority leader argued.
“The framers built the Senate to keep temporary rage from doing permanent damage to our republic,” McConnell said.
Throughout the trial, which began in earnest on Jan. 21, Republicans shifted their messages. First, many said Trump hadn’t done what he was accused of: hold up congressionally approved security aid for Ukraine in order to push for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. But as the trial continued and new evidence of the president’s misconduct came to light in the media, Republican senators began to argue that Trump was right to pressure the Ukrainians to launch such an investigation ― that there was a quid pro quo, but it was justified.
The president, for his part, continued to insist he did nothing wrong. He plans to make a public statement at noon on Thursday to discuss, as he described it on Twitter, “our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that the trial “ended in the full vindication and exoneration” of Trump and that only his opponents, including “one failed Republican presidential candidate,” voted to convict him on the articles of impeachment.
“In what has now become a consistent tradition for Democrats, this was yet another witch-hunt that deprived the President of his due process rights and was based on a series of lies,” Grisham said in a statement.
Ahead of arguments in the trial, Republicans blocked Democrats’ efforts to call witnesses and request documents ― and then complained that the House impeachment managers’ presentations contained nothing new. They immediately shot down a last-minute plea from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for a censure vote against the president.
On Friday last week, after arguments from both sides and the answering of senators’ questions were over, the Senate refused again to hear from witnesses in a 51-49 vote. Two Republicans, Romney and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, joined Democrats in that losing effort. It was an unprecedented decision in a presidential impeachment trial ― senators heard from witnesses in the proceedings against Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.
Democrats repeatedly urged their colleagues to call witnesses, arguing they could do so quickly so the Senate could get back to other work. They hoped to hear from people who may have firsthand accounts of Trump’s deeds but were barred by the White House from testifying before the House, such as former national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton reportedly wrote in an upcoming book that he recalls Trump tying the withheld Ukraine aid to the launch of an investigation into the Bidens.
Even without those new witnesses, House impeachment managers presented a slew of evidence that Trump did what they had alleged. They noted, for example, that Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had testified before the House Intelligence Committee that he told the Ukrainian foreign minister that Ukraine would need to announce an investigation into the Bidens in order to receive the withheld aid.
Plus, Trump himself admitted to it. He told reporters in October that he’d wanted Ukraine to “start a major investigation into the Bidens.”
Some Republicans acknowledged that it was clear he did it. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who some hoped would break with his party to vote for witnesses, said last week that there was “no need for more evidence to prove” Trump demanded a Biden investigation, but that however inappropriate Trump’s actions, removing him from office was not the right approach. Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also decided to acquit Trump even though they said he behaved inappropriately.
Republicans also had another excuse: They argued that the impeachment resulted from blind partisanship and even hatred of the president.
“Hate is a destructive sentiment and right now it seems that congressional Democrats are consumed with hatred for Donald Trump at the expense of everything else,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told HuffPost on Wednesday before the vote. “It in effect came to a culmination when Nancy Pelosi stood up and ripped the State of the Union speech into pieces.”
The president himself spent the morning tweeting criticism of the House speaker for tearing up the text of his remarks, which were full of anti-immigrant demagoguery, half-truths about his economic policies and outright lies about health care.
“What are the odds if left in office that he will continue trying to cheat? I will tell you: 100%. Not 5, not 10, not 50, but 100%.”
Many Republican senators said they were letting the voters decide what should happen next ― something Trump’s defense attorneys repeatedly suggested was the right approach. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone accused Democrats of trying “to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history” and claimed that Trump’s ouster from office would mean removing him from the ballot in November as well. (This isn’t necessarily true. The Senate could have convicted the president and held a separate vote on whether he should be disqualified from the next election.)
Plus, the impeachment itself was over alleged attempts by Trump to push for interference into an election.
“What are the odds if left in office that he will continue trying to cheat?” lead impeachment manager Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said during closing arguments on Monday. “I will tell you: 100%. Not 5, not 10, not 50, but 100%. If you have found him guilty and you do not remove him from office, he will continue trying to cheat in the election until he succeeds.”
Now that Senate Republicans have rubber-stamped Trump’s actions, Democrats warned that he’ll only feel more emboldened.
“I believe the precedent being set by acquittal will mean that presidents can operate above the law,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
It was unclear until shortly before the vote whether Democrats would stay united in voting for conviction. But all three of the Democrats considered possible votes for acquittal ― Sens. Manchin, Doug Jones of Alabama and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona ― voted to convict Trump on both articles of impeachment.
Manchin said that his decision was not political and that he wanted to uphold his oath and to face his family and friends afterward.
“If I couldn’t explain it, I would be worried. If I did a political vote, I would be worried,” the West Virginia senator said.
In a speech just before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) lamented his Republican colleagues’ decision to side with the president.
“The eyes of the nation are upon this Senate, and what they see would strike doubt in the heart of even the most ardent patriot,” Schumer said. “The House managers established that the president abused the great power of his office to try to cheat in an election, and the Senate majority is poised to look the other way.”
Matt Fuller and Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.