After Donald Trump was cleared in last year’s impeachment trial over the Ukraine scandal, he hosted a White House bash with delighted staffers, political allies and family members.
But the Senate’s vote to acquit Trump again on Saturday, this time on charges of inciting the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, offered the former president far less reason for celebration.
Trump dodged a blow when Democrats backtracked on the chance to call witnesses in the trial, which might have led to many more days of proceedings and a barrage of officials testifying against him.
While Trump could be satisfied that he avoided conviction over his role in encouraging the assault, he suffered far greater damage to his political image this time round.
Some of the harshest criticism of the former president came from the seven Republican senators who declared him guilty. Even Mitch McConnell, the party’s leader in the upper chamber, who cleared Trump on grounds that only sitting presidents can face impeachment, made no qualms of his desire to see him out of Republican politics and possibly face criminal prosecution.
“Former president Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said after the vote. “There is no question that president Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” he added.
Stuck at his Mar-a-Lago resort after being voted out of office — and without a social media platform after being ejected from Twitter — Trump issued a written statement on Saturday in reaction to the acquittal. He called the trial a “witch hunt” and said he looked forward to “continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people”.
Trump has contemplated a run for presidency in 2024, toyed with launching his own personal movement and set himself up to be a powerbroker in the party during the 2022 midterm elections — but all those potential roles have been clouded by the events of the past few weeks.
The bulk of Republican voters remain loyal to him and many lawmakers from his party do not want to criticise him for fear of political retribution. But the former president is grappling with a tarnished brand and doubts about his political future.
“The attack on the Capitol was not good for his legacy. He had an opportunity to be in a very strong position to run again for president had he done all the things people do when they lose,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former congressional aide at EFB Advocacy in Washington. “I don’t think that he necessarily plotted with the Proud Boys to overthrow the government, but his comments were irresponsible and stupid.”
Some Republicans have already used the opportunity to distance themselves from the former president. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN during the Trump administration and a possible 2024 presidential contender, said he had “fallen so far” that he might not even be in the race.
“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” Haley told Politico. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
Trump is far from a political pariah, however. According to a poll conducted for CNBC this month, 54 per cent of Americans want Trump to be out of politics, but among Republicans that number drops to 26 per cent. The remaining 74 per cent of Republicans want him to either lead the party, start a third party or remain politically active.
“I think there is a recognition that on the heels of January 6, Trump’s brand took a hit among many in Washington, political donors, corporate America and many voters,” said Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist at Firehouse Strategies in Washington. But Terrill argues that Trump’s strength was always less with the US capital’s “decision makers” than with Republican party base voters, who are still by his side “rigorously”.
“Trump may very well have a very strong presence in the party going forward,” Terrill said.
Feehery said that the farther one is from the Capitol Building, “the less impact [impeachment] has with Republican voters.
“If you voted for Trump you liked what he was about which was a big middle finger to the establishment. And you still like him because he’s still a big middle finger to the establishment.”
Some of Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill have been in contact with the former president since he left office, including Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, who went to visit him in Mar-a-Lago.
Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and a frequent golfing partner of the former president, told Politico on Friday that he was planning to see Trump to urge him to be helpful, rather than harmful, to the Republican cause in the midterm campaigns.
“I'm going to try and convince him that we can't get there without you, but you can't keep the Trump movement going without the GOP united,” Graham said. “If we come back in 2022, then, it's an affirmation of your policies. But if we lose again in 2022, the narrative is going to continue that not only you lost the White House, but the Republican Party is in a bad spot,” he added.
Some Republicans in Washington doubt that they will be able to dictate Trump’s political behaviour and the decision about his involvement will be entirely in his court.
But Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) at the George Washington University, said Trump’s political strength is likely to keep losing steam.
“I believe that Trump will have a political future which will continue to decrease in relevance over the next year,” Brown said. “The story of Trump’s presidency is only going to look worse the further we get away from it.”