Meanwhile, the backlash began against the seven Republican senators who crossed the aisle Saturday to vote with Democrats to convict Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) planted his flag firmly in Trump’s camp Sunday, with harsh words for his Republican colleagues — including his party leader.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted to acquit the former president — then followed his “not guilty” vote with a lengthy floor speech about how Trump had been, in his estimation, “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the mob that overran the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The violent siege left five people dead, including a police officer. Two other officers who helped fight the Capitol mob died by suicide in the days after, and their families want their deaths recognized as “line of duty” deaths.
McConnell may have “got a load off his chest” with his floor speech, Graham said, but he had also made himself a target for pro-Trump Republicans in 2022.
“Donald Trump is the most vibrant member of the Republican Party. The Trump movement is alive and well,” Graham declared to “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “All I can say is that the most potent force in the Republican Party is President Trump. We need Trump.”
Graham’s full-throated defense of Trump laid bare the divisions the former president has caused within the GOP over the past four years. There are those Republicans who say they must distance themselves from Trump to survive, and those who believe doubling down on Trumpism is the only way forward. Up to this point, Graham has waffled — alternately trying to appeal to both sides — but on Sunday he made clear he would belong to the latter faction and seemed to enjoy his role as Trump champion.
“I’ve been asked by a lot of people . . . ‘Calm President Trump down, talk to him, get him to calm down.’ Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. But to my Republican colleagues, this is a two-way street,” Graham said. “I’m into winning. And if you want to get something off your chest, fine. But I’m into winning.”
At times in his interview with Wallace, Graham sounded as if he were reading from a script meant for Trump. He blasted the impeachment trial as “a complete joke” and President Biden for attempting to push his “most radical agenda.”
When asked about former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent decision to distance herself from Trump, after supporting him unequivocally and not speaking out against his baseless claims of election fraud, Graham said the fellow South Carolinian was “wrong.”
He also said that Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, should run to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who cast a surprise vote to convict Trump on Saturday.
“The biggest winner I think of this whole impeachment trial is Lara Trump,” Graham said. “If she runs, I will certainly be behind her because I think she represents the future of the Republican Party.”
Graham’s unapologetic embrace of Trump — in defiance of the GOP’s longtime leaders — comes as a string of high-profile Republicans who have dared to criticize the former president have faced punishments from their state and local parties. On Saturday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.) became the latest Republican to be censured by his state party for his vote to convict Trump. Cassidy had previously voted against the constitutionality of the trial, but said he changed his mind after listening to House impeachment managers make their case. Over the course of the trial, he appeared to devour news articles in the off-hours and raised specific questions to fill in the gaps.
Ultimately, Cassidy cast a “guilty” vote, and released a simple, 10-second video to explain his decision. “Our Constitution and our country is more important than any one person. I voted to convict President Trump because he is guilty,” Cassidy said in the video.
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Cassidy waved off concerns about what Trump would mean to the GOP moving forward.
“I think his force wanes,” Cassidy said. “The Republican Party is more than just one person. The Republican Party is about ideas.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has been outspoken in his criticism of Trump, predicted Sunday that there would be “a real battle for the soul of the Republican Party over the next couple of years.”
“I was very proud of some of the folks who stood up and did the right thing. It’s not always easy. In fact, it’s sometimes really hard to go against your base and your colleagues to do what you think is right for the country,” Hogan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Hogan, who has not ruled out a presidential run in 2024, said there would have been more GOP votes against Trump had members not feared backlash from Trump and his supporters.
“A lot of Republicans are outraged, but they don’t have the courage to stand up and vote that way because they’re afraid of being primaried, or they’re going to lose their careers,” he added.
Trump himself has shown no intention of fading away, issuing a statement shortly after the Senate vote that slammed the entire impeachment trial as “a witch hunt” and lamented that no other president had been subjected to such indignities.
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” Trump stated.
Trump, who has previously hinted at running for president again in 2024, added that “in the months ahead I have much to share with you.”
Various Republicans have tried to wrest the party from Trump’s influence. Last month, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), one of 10 Republicans in the House to vote to impeach Trump, started the Country First PAC to challenge the party’s embrace of the former president. (He, too, has been censured by his local GOP apparatus.)
Over the weekend, Evan McMullin, executive director of the nonprofit political organization Stand Up Republic, spoke of his recent call with more than 120 Republican officials about starting a new party or faction within the GOP.
“Well I think what’s clear . . . is that something new is required,” McMullin said on MSNBC on Saturday. “Forty percent feel there is no hope for the GOP to reform and to rejoin the healthy political process in America.”
McMullin said the hypothetical party could put up primary challengers against “Republicans who have most abandoned our Democracy,” citing Arizona Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul A. Gosar as examples. McMullin, who ran as an independent in the 2016 presidential election in large part to counter what he saw as the alarming pull Trump had on the GOP, said Trump’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal have only “intensified” the discussions about a third party.
“We are committed to either taking a new route to fight for the direction of the GOP or to compete with it directly,” McMullin said.
Democrats defended their decision not to call witnesses Saturday in part because they recognized the degree to which GOP senators still support Trump. Republicans largely voted in lockstep with Trump during his presidency. In his speech Saturday, McConnell justified his acquittal vote by saying he did not believe the trial was constitutional because Trump was no longer president when the chamber received the article of impeachment — without mentioning he had himself refused to reconvene the Senate any earlier than the day before Trump left office.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he was fairly certain there would have been enough votes to convict Trump had there been a secret ballot. Murphy also rejected Republicans’ assertions that if a Democratic president had been on trial, the votes would have been reversed.
“I do think that this cult of personality that’s been built up around President Trump is fundamentally different,” Murphy said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I really don’t believe that Democrats would rush to the defense of a president of our party that was essentially trying to overturn an election.”
On Sunday, multiple House impeachment managers said it would not have mattered whether the Democrats had called additional witnesses. The resulting vote would not have changed.
“Once Mitch McConnell made it clear he intended to acquit . . . what the House managers needed wasn’t more witnesses or more evidence,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said on ABC’s “This Week.” “What we all needed was more Republican courage.”
Karoun Demirjian and Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.