The outcome was preordained. The Republican response was not.
As the House spent the day speechifying, everyone knew that Nancy Pelosi had the votes to impeach Donald Trump -- ensuring, if nothing else, that he goes in the history books as the only president to twice suffer that fate.
But there was a lingering question as to how many GOP lawmakers would follow the lead of Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican, who dramatically broke with her party to support impeachment with a blistering statement about Trump’s "betrayal" of his office.
That may have been personal in part -- her dad, Dick Cheney, called her in the cloakroom to say Trump had attacked her in his rally speech before the riot--and in part a matter of conscience.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer repeatedly quoted Cheney in his closing comments.
In the 232-197 vote, 10 Republicans joined every Democrat in backing impeachment. That’s a small fraction, though probably double what it would have been without Cheney’s defection, yet gave the proceedings a bipartisan flavor.
The day’s other big surprise: Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy holding Trump accountable, even as he argued for a censure resolution instead. "The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters," he said on the floor. "He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding."
McCarthy has been under fierce pressure from party members unhappy with his handling of the assault’s aftermath. Clearly, some Republicans are torn between supporting their president and showing voters they want accountability for the violent invasion of the people’s house.
And yet it’s the Mitch McConnell maneuver that still has Washington reeling. On Tuesday, his team leaked word to the New York Times, Fox News, and other outlets that he believes Trump committed impeachable offenses and is pleased that the House is moving forward. Then CBS reported yesterday, based on "a person close to" the Republican leader, that he supports impeachment but won’t make any comment until the House formally submits the charge.
Having lit the match, the senator had to deal with the smoke. McConnell put out a statement saying "while the press has been full of speculation, 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." He has to say that, of course, or be accused of prejudging the evidence.
If McConnell does eventually embrace impeachment, it raises the possibility -- for the first time, really -- that 17 GOP senators could vote to convict Trump. It would be a far easier vote if the leader of the Republican caucus, who blames the president for the loss of their majority, is on board.
Here’s why I remain skeptical. Trump remains very popular with the rank and file, and any senator voting to convict him would alienate part of his or her base and likely face a primary challenge backed by the former president. I also don’t believe that McConnell would whip the vote--meaning he’d leave his colleagues along to vote their conscience rather than pressuring them to back the leadership line.
Watching the House debate yesterday, it was striking how many members talked about their personal reactions to the insurrection, some saying they feared for their lives. Those fears were quite real, especially given what we’ve since learned about the organized nature of the siege and the intent to commit murder.
One Democrat after another spoke of Trump inciting violence; Missouri’s Cori Bush called him the "white supremacist-in-chief." One Republican after another called the move an unprecedented "sham," as Ronny Jackson of Texas put it, and an attempt at revenge.
Each side accused the other of shattering political unity. Republicans said Democrats had objected to the Electoral College results for George W. Bush and Trump; Democrats said those were symbolic protests long after John Kerry and Hillary Clinton had conceded.
Outside, photos showed National Guard troops, who should have been there last week, napping on the marble floors, a reminder that the Capitol remains on a war footing.
The Democrats justified their rush job -- no hearing, no ability to amend the article charging Trump with incitement -- by saying Trump represents such a clear and present danger that he must be removed from office as soon as possible.
But that argument was undercut by the fact that the Senate trial won’t be finished until Trump is already out of office--and continued confusion over when the Democrats will submit the case to the upper chamber.
Beyond the political crosscurrents, it just seems strange to convict a former president who by then will be back at Mar-a-Lago. (McConnell’s office says no trial will start until after the inauguration.)
The Democrats naturally want to hold the follow-up vote that would bar him from running again, at age 78, four years from now. The downside for the Dems is that all this will distract and overshadow the incoming Biden administration, with Covid-19 now killing as many as 4,400 Americans a day.
Meanwhile, the Twitter-less Trump issued a statement the old-fashioned way -- emailing the press -- and an accompanying video orchestrated by White House aides. He said in the release that "in light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind. That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for."
That is a far more positive message than Trump’s "witch hunt" rhetoric just one day earlier.