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House Republicans put divides over Trump's culpability on clear display

NBC News logo NBC News 1/13/2021 Ben Kamisar and Leigh Ann Caldwell
Tom Cole looking at the camera © Provided by NBC News

WASHINGTON — As the debate unfolded on the House floor ahead of the vote to impeach President Donald Trump for a second time, the growing divide within the GOP over Trump's actions was on clear display.

Many Republicans mounted little defense of Trump's role in the Capitol riot, a stark reversal from last year's impeachment debate. Instead, much of the Republican criticism focused on complaints about the process and predictions that impeaching Trump would only inflame tensions.

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And while some allies did defend Trump directly, defending him was far from the center of the GOP argument.

Full story: House impeaches Trump for second time; Senate must now weigh conviction

During the first of two rounds of debate on the House's articles of impeachment, Republicans didn't even use the full hour allotted to them.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who was tasked with leading the first round of debate as the top GOP lawmaker on the Rules Committee, began the Republican program by criticizing the riots, calling the attack "the darkest day during my time of service."

And when he turned toward his opposition to impeachment, he said that the country needs to unite and that he doesn't believe impeachment would serve that goal best.

"I can think of no action the House can take that's more likely to further divide the American people than the action we are contemplating today," he said.

"We desperately need to seek a path forward, healing for the American people. So it's unfortunate the path to support healing is not the path the majority has chosen today," he said. "Instead, the House is moving forward, erratically, with a truncated process."

Just a half-dozen other Republicans stood to speak in the first round. Some offered other suggestions, such as a commission to investigate the attack, some lamented the violence, some decried the push to impeach as politically motivated, and others voiced frustration with the speed of the process.

But none defended Trump.

The arguments prompted House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to push back by quoting Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of the few Republicans supporting impeachment.

"He doesn't need any long, drawn-out consideration. 'If these actions are not worthy of impeachment, what is an impeachable offense?'" Hoyer said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the president of the United States broke his oath and incited this insurrection," he said.

The tone changed, however, in the second round of debate, which began early Wednesday afternoon. This time, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a close confidant of Trump's, controlled the Republicans' speaking time. And defenses of Trump became a bit sharper, even as most of the focus remained on process complaints and concerns that impeachment wouldn't help the country unify.

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Jordan pointed to Trump's accomplishments in office and accused Democrats of promoting a "double standard" for political purposes. But he offered no explicit defense of Trump's actions Jan. 6 or of any of the complaints in the impeachment article.

"It's always been about getting the president, no matter what. It's an obsession," Jordan said. "It's not about impeachment anymore. It's about canceling."

The first real defense of the president came in the second round of debate, just before 1 p.m. ET, when Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., argued that while he disagreed with much of Trump's recent conduct, he didn't believe he incited the riots.

"If we impeached every politician who gave a fiery speech to a crowd of partisans, this Capitol would be deserted. That's what the president did. that's all he did," he McClintock said. "He specifically told the crowd to protest peacefully and patriotically, and the vast majority of them did."

And shortly after, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., offered a light defense of Trump while trying to accuse Democrats of using the attack to achieve their long-term goal.

"The president has acted substantially the same for four years. He has rallied his base and he has, in fact, called for peaceful protest, as he did just a few days ago," Issa said.

"Today, we are trying to punish the president, at least some are, for four years of what he did, not for what happened last week," he said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., typified the tightrope walk early Wednesday afternoon, calling a vote to impeach a "mistake" and then calling for censure him instead, saying the House should look for more facts.

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"A vote to impeach would further divide this nation. A vote to impeach will further fan the flames of partisan division. Most Americans want neither inaction or retribution," McCarthy said. "The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attacks on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,"

But one Republican dismissed his party's process arguments to announce his support to impeach the president.

"These articles of impeachment are flawed, but I will not use process as an excuse. There is no excuse for President Trump's actions," said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.

"The president took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic," he said. "Last week, there was a domestic threat at the door of the Capitol, and he did nothing to stop it. That is why, with a heavy heart and clear resolve, I will vote yes."

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