Donald Trump emerged from his second impeachment trial almost completely politically intact. But amid widespread laments (or celebrations, depending on the affiliation of the speaker) about the former president’s grip on the Republican party, some prominent voices suggested a changing of the guard may still be due.
“Losing the bully pulpit is a big difference,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas told the Hill, of Trump’s ejection from the White House and from major social media platforms, in the aftermath of the US Capitol attack.
“I think that [we’re] already beginning to see some groundwork being laid by other people who aspire to succeed him.”
The Senate voted 57-43 on the charge that Trump incited the mob assault on the Capitol on 6 January, falling short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction. Seven Republicans joined every Democrat and independent in a verdict which would have barred Trump from running for office again.
Only one Republican, Mitt Romney, defected in Trump’s first impeachment trial last year. But as Trump’s supporters brushed off the stronger show of opposition inside the party, so did Trump himself.
The former president will be 78 in 2024 and has not committed to running again. But his post-acquittal statement did preview a resumption of a more visible role in US politics in the coming months.
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” Trump said. “In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people. There has never been anything like it!”
In interviews on Sunday, Republicans who dared to turn against Trump were asked about the likely consequences of their votes.
In Louisiana, the state Republican party voted to censure Senator Bill Cassidy, who the chair of the Louisiana Republican Caucus warned not to “expect a warm welcome when you come home to Louisiana!”
Speaking to ABC’s This Week, Cassidy said: “I’m attempting to hold President Trump accountable and that is the trust that I have from the people who elected me and I am very confident that as time passes people will move to that position.”
Trump’s allies argued that he remains the center of the Republican universe.
“Donald Trump is the most vibrant member of the Republican party,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close Trump ally, told Fox News Sunday. “The Trump movement is alive and well.”
Jason Chaffetz, a former congressman from Utah, framed the impeachment as a quixotic Democratic failure.
“I don’t think history will treat this very well,” he told Fox. “It didn’t have the legitimacy that Democrats hoped it would. They really didn’t sway anybody. I think it was a complete waste of time and now Democrats are 0 for 2 and America wants to move on.”
At the same time, there are indications that unity remains elusive within Republican ranks. In an interview with Politico, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader who excoriated Trump after the impeachment trial but nonetheless voted for acquittal, indicated he would wade into primaries in which a Trump-backed candidate seemed set to win.
“My goal is, in every way possible, to have nominees representing the Republican party who can win,” McConnell said. “Some of them may be people the former president likes. Some of them may not be. The only thing I care about is electability.”
McConnell added: “I’m not predicting the president would support people who couldn’t win. But I do think electability – not who supports who – is the critical point.”
Graham indicated how McConnell’s Senate speech had gone down among Trump supporters.
“He got a load off his chest,” he said, “obviously, but unfortunately he put a load on the back of Republicans. That speech you will see in 2022 campaigns.
“I would imagine if you’re a Republican running in Arizona or Georgia, New Hampshire, where we have a chance to take back the Senate, they may be playing Senator McConnell’s speech and asking you about it as a candidate. And I imagine if you’re an incumbent Republican, they’re going to be people asking you, ‘Will you support Senator McConnell in the future?’”
Close allies of Trump are running for major offices in those next midterms. In Arkansas, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders is vying for the Republican nomination for governor. In North Carolina, Graham suggested, Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law, may well run for Senate to replace Richard Burr, the retiring senator who voted to convict Trump.
There is also talk that Ivanka Trump could run for Senate in Florida, challenging Marco Rubio.
Prominent anti-Trump figures see conflict ahead. Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland who is widely expected to mount a presidential run in 2024, said anti-Trump sentiment would continue to grow.
“We’re only a month in to the Biden administration,” Hogan told CNN’s State of the Union. “I think the final chapter of Donald Trump and the Republican party hasn’t been written yet.”