Republican senators who voted to acquit former President Trump during his second trial after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol largely say they don’t regret their votes years later, as Trump looks like he’ll be the party’s standard-bearer again in 2024.
One Republican senator who frequently criticizes Trump’s conduct but nevertheless voted to acquit Trump of inciting insurrection said they would have voted the same way if given a second chance after knowing the outcome.
“The way I look at it is the standard is high because you’re undermining the will of the American people,” the senator said of Trump’s post-Jan. 6 impeachment trial. “If you can’t meet that threshold, it’s inappropriate to convict for the purposes for keeping out of office.”
A second Republican senator often critical of Trump who voted to acquit and requested anonymity to look back in history to reconsider that choice said it was apparent at the time that whatever Republican voted to convict Trump would face a political backlash.
The senator said that even if Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the time had wanted to rid his party of Trump, it could have cost him his leadership position if he voted to convict.
“I don’t think so,” the senator said when asked whether McConnell would have voted differently had he known that Trump would come back to dominate the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
“I think he would have made the calculated decision that he would not have been able to be leader of the caucus after that. He would have been deciding to be a senior committeeman for the next six years,” the senator speculated of his long-time colleague from Kentucky.
Former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a recent interview that he believes many Republicans on Capitol Hill would have voted differently on impeachment and barring Trump from future office if they had known he would resurrect himself politically to win a third nomination for president.
“I think there are a lot of people in Congress, good friends of mine, who would take [their] vote back if they could because I think a lot of these members of Congress — like on the second impeachment — they thought Trump was dead. They thought after Jan. 6 he wasn’t going to have a comeback, he was dead,” he said.
But GOP senators who spoke with The Hill didn’t lend credence to Ryan’s arguments, either on or off the record.
GOP senators who did vote to impeach Trump say they don’t regret their decision.
“I have no regrets,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump on the charge of inciting insurrection in 2021.
Her thoughts align with Ryan’s in that Murkowski suspects some of her GOP colleagues do have regrets about their vote. She marveled at Trump’s comeback, noting that many Republicans thought Trump was finished politically after the awful spectacle of Jan. 6, 2021.
“I think they’re looking at this and [think,] ‘It’s like a zombie coming back from the dead.’ He was political roadkill. Two impeachments and now these indictments — four indictments — and you’re telling me he’s the heir apparent?”
But Murkowski said none of her colleagues who voted to acquit Trump is willing to admit making a mistake, even in private.
“Nobody’s saying it out loud. But, again, I certainly have no regrets,” she said, noting that Ryan, the former Speaker, is “a smart guy” and “he was around a lot of people who kind of walked the plank for Donald Trump.”
“The party would be in a lot better shape if he were not the prospective nominee and right now that’s the way it looks. Maybe Nikki Haley can do a miracle,” Murkowski said, referring to the former South Carolina governor who is narrowing Trump’s lead in New Hampshire ahead of its primary contest.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict and remove Trump from office after his first and second impeachment trials, chuckled about Ryan’s claim that many Republicans wish they had a do-over on their impeachment vote.
“I love Paul, he has a source of information I don’t. I’m not going to confirm or deny. I don’t have any question about my vote. No one has come to me and said, ‘I wish I had a different vote,’” he said.
Instead, Romney said colleagues have told him “they respect someone who votes their conscience.”
“I wish everybody would have voted [as] I did on almost everything, including impeachment,” he said. “There’s no question the Republican Party would be better off without Donald Trump. We’re a populist party now which is fueled by resentment and anger, and that’s a dead-end street.”
McConnell told colleagues a week after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that he was open to convicting Trump.
“I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate after the House voted 232-197 to impeach Trump.
In the end, he voted to acquit, though he gave a scathing floor address about Trump, and their relationship has never been friendly since Trump left the White House.
McConnell in the Feb. 13 address said there was “no question” that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol.
The first GOP senator who spoke to The Hill about the vote to acquit acknowledged harboring serious concerns about Trump’s influence on the Republican Party but insisted it would have been inappropriate to take the question of Trump’s return to power out of voters’ hands.
“A problem with today’s world is people want the result that they want and the process is irrelevant and that’s a problem because the process is what defends our freedoms and liberties,” the senator said.
But the lawmaker acknowledged there was widespread discussion among GOP senators at the time of Trump’s second impeachment trial about the political benefit of banning Trump from federal office forever.
“That pitch was made at the time of the vote: ‘We got to keep this guy from serving again,’” the senator recalled. “Are there people who would be wishing this would be different? Sure.”
Flash forward to December 2023, and there are many Senate Republicans, including members of the leadership, who hold concerns about Trump’s viability as a general election candidate and his impact on Senate races, given his track record of alienating moderate Republican and college-educated women voters.
With Trump crushing the rest of the Republican presidential primary field, Republican senators acknowledge he is likely to win the nomination but many of them think the party would have a better chance of defeating President Biden with another nominee, such as Haley, who polls better than Trump in a matchup against Biden.
Trump created new political headaches for GOP leaders in Washington this month when he declared that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” and approvingly quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the American political system is rotten.
McConnell and Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) slapped down Trump’s comments about immigrants and were silent after the Colorado Supreme Court barred him from the 2024 ballot for supporting insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
McConnell said after the 2022 midterm election that the GOP brand turned off centrists and moderate Republicans “who looked at us and concluded: Too much chaos, too much negativity.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, said in May that “Trump’s time has passed him by” and Republicans need “a candidate who can actually win.”
The two other Republican senators still in Congress who voted to convict Trump and bar him from ever running again for president — Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — said they stand by their votes.
Asked if the party would be better without Trump, Cassidy said: “What basically you’re asking me is did I think he should be impeached and I did. That speaks for itself.”
Collins said she heard about Ryan’s comments but didn’t read what he said exactly.
“I made my decision based on the evidence presented at the trial and that was the only basis for it. I’ve not heard anyone second guess his or her decision on this,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for Paul Ryan. In 2016, I wrote him in for president.”
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