Is the Republican Party finally starting to part ways with Donald Trump?
On the face of it, the attempt to convict the former U.S. president of inciting insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 fell short of the required two-thirds Senate majority by 10 votes. And it is still largely Trump’s party: One of the seven Republican senators who broke ranks to vote in favor of a conviction, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, has already faced censure from his state’s Republicans.
But to judge Saturday’s impeachment proceedings solely through the headline that Trump was acquitted misses the broader picture. The 57-43 result is in fact the most bipartisan such vote in U.S. history, making it much harder for Trump or his supporters to brand the impeachment proceedings as purely partisan or one-sided. And while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell himself voted to acquit—because he believed it wasn’t constitutional to impeach someone who was no longer in office—he later savaged Trump for a “disgraceful dereliction of duty,” an on-the-record excoriation that may encourage future civil legal proceedings against the former president.
A broadening disavowal of Trump, and the contrast with last year’s more one-sided impeachment result, could make a difference in the eyes of the world. Even after the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden, a committed internationalist, many American allies have remained fearful of a return of so-called Trumpism—the virulent unilateralism, jingoism, and neoisolationism that marked Trump’s four-year tenure and came to define the party.
Now, an internecine fight for the future of the party may be emerging, one that could affect how Republicans see the world and deal with foreign policy as well.
On one side are fierce Trump loyalists such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Josh Hawley, both seen as potential presidential candidates in 2024. On the other are McConnell, still one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, another potential presidential candidate who stunned conservatives when she voted for Trump’s impeachment and was still able to retain a party leadership spot. Somewhere in the middle but leaning toward a break with Trump is former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is also said to be vying for the 2024 nomination.
An erstwhile loyalist who campaigned for Trump, Haley said in a recent interview with Politico that she was “disgusted” by his behavior surrounding the Jan. 6 riots, especially his victimization of Mike Pence, after the then-vice president agreed to certify Biden’s election victory.
“I think he’s going to find himself further and further isolated,” Haley said. “I think his business is suffering at this point. I think he’s lost any sort of political viability he was going to have.”
McConnell’s words on Saturday may have the most lasting impact. The Senate minority leader may have come across as having it both ways—voting for acquittal while criticizing Trump—but his statement on the Senate floor suggests that the touchstone of success for Republicans is no longer simply who hews closest to Trump’s line. “He didn’t get away with anything—yet,” McConnell said, making clear the former president is still subject to criminal and civil prosecution for his actions in office. Trump has reportedly voiced concerns about being charged, and he is facing criminal investigations in Georgia over his efforts to overturn the election, not to mention criminal investigations by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and the New York state attorney general over his business dealings.
McConnell’s distancing himself from Trump, said Washington pollster Stanley Greenberg, could lead to a “civil war” inside the Republican Party, albeit one that McConnell is not necessarily going to win.
“I think the importance of McConnell’s speech is greatly underestimated—particularly as he struggles to field strong candidates in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania,” Greenberg said in an email. “It was a signal to the Justice Department and the states that you should be free to tie up Donald Trump in costly civil and criminal prosecutions.”
McConnell, a savvy political veteran who knows how to count votes as well as anyone in Washington, told Politico Saturday night that he’s willing to put forward candidates in Republican primaries whom Trump may oppose. “The only thing I care about is electability,” he said.
All the more reason, then, to deduce that McConnell is beginning to see Trump as politically toxic. “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” he said on Saturday of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on [his] wishes. … The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things.”
Elaine Kamarck, a Democratic strategist at the Brookings Institution, suggested McConnell had made a deliberate choice to protect the party and risk his own political future by speaking so strongly against Trump. “By not leading the charge on conviction he was protecting his GOP colleagues,” she said. “So he has decided to try and degrade Trump for the good of the party.”
The question of whether McConnell and other leading figures can successfully leave Trump behind will be played out first in the midterm elections in 2022. Whatever their distaste for Trump, many Republicans continue to endorse his policies and his approach to the world. “It’s not clear to me that one speech is going to wrest leadership of the party away from Trump, unfortunately,” Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said in an email.
Pompeo, perhaps Trump’s most loyal senior cabinet official, may be the leading candidate to pick up his mantle. Since leaving office, Pompeo has contended that Trump made the United States “so much safer today than four years ago” and “restored America’s credibility.” Last week, after Biden’s two-hour conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Pompeo pressed him to confront China “head on” as the Trump administration did.
Hawley is at least as hawkish on foreign policy, but he has also fallen from his high perch in the party, having been widely condemned by Republicans for defending Trump’s unfounded “stop the steal” movement and the march on the Capitol. Hayley, based on her performance at the U.N., may take a more moderate approach: While she defended Trump’s most divisive policies, such as moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, behind the scenes she was viewed as an effective, reasonable diplomat by her U.N. colleagues, for example mustering Security Council sanctions against North Korea.
If Trump does come to be marginalized, then other Republican moderates who voted to convict—Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Mitt Romney of Utah—may well find themselves with more room to maneuver within the party.