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Trump impeachment trial: Fallout from acquittal exposes deepening rift within GOP

CNN logo CNN 2/16/2021 By Eric Bradner, CNN
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie standing in front of a crowd: WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: U.S. President Donald Trump turns to reporters as he exits the White House to walk toward Marine One on the South Lawn on January 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. Following last week's deadly pro-Trump riot on Capitol Hill, President Trump is making his first public appearance with a trip to the border town of Alamo, Texas to view the partial construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) © Drew Angerer/Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: U.S. President Donald Trump turns to reporters as he exits the White House to walk toward Marine One on the South Lawn on January 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. Following last week's deadly pro-Trump riot on Capitol Hill, President Trump is making his first public appearance with a trip to the border town of Alamo, Texas to view the partial construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's acquittal in the Senate's impeachment trial -- and the backlash now facing Republicans who voted to convict him -- have exposed the deepening rift within the GOP over whether to continue to fully embrace the former President or seek to move past his divisive brand of politics.

The immediate aftermath of Trump's trial has underscored just how difficult it will be for the GOP to break from Trump as the party charts its path forward. The round of recriminations over Trump has Republicans who are tasked with winning back the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections concerned it could distract from the party's ability to focus on defeating Democrats and regaining power in Washington.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is vowing to focus on electability over loyalty to Trump as the party faces a slate of races to control the Senate in the states where the margins between Trump and President Joe Biden had been closest.

But Republican senators who voted to convict Trump are now facing censures from local and state parties that so far have not tolerated any criticism of the former President, now nearly four weeks removed from office. Those reprisals are an illustration of how the party is currently fashioned around a single leader -- and illustrate the difficulty Republican candidates will face in retaining the support of a Trump-adoring GOP base while appealing to a broader electorate with whom Trump is unpopular.

Trump had fewer Republican defenders during his second impeachment and trial over the January 6 riot than he'd had in his first impeachment a year earlier. But the party still walked away from a chance to break from the former President, with only seven GOP senators voting Saturday to convict Trump -- short of the 67 that could have left him ineligible to run for office again.

Despite their votes to acquit Trump, some Republicans -- including McConnell -- condemned his actions after the trial had concluded. McConnell said Trump was "practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day."

In a Saturday evening interview with Politico, McConnell signaled a more muscular approach moving forward. He said he intends to intervene in 2022 primaries to ensure the GOP doesn't nominate candidates whose loyalty to Trump appeals to the Republican base, but whose views would alienate the broader electorate.

"I'm not predicting the president would support people who couldn't win. But I do think electability -- not who supports who -- is the critical point," McConnell said.

His resolve could be tested in crucial races in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and other battleground states that could determine which party controls the evenly divided Senate. Republican voters' view of Trump, and their interest in penalizing those who have broken with him, could also shape key governor's races and House seats next year.

Already, the impeachment injected fealty to Trump into 2022 House primaries. Nearly all of the 10 House members who voted to impeach the former President now face at least one challenger -- and in some cases more -- for their seats in next year's midterms.

County and state Republican Parties are officially rebuking some of the GOP senators who voted to convict Trump on Saturday. Louisiana's Bill Cassidy was censured by his state party hours after his vote. Nebraska's Ben Sasse faces a vote in the coming weeks.

And the North Carolina Republican Party voted to censure retiring Sen. Richard Burr on Monday night.

Burr's vote could also shape the race to replace him next year. Lara Trump, the former President's daughter-in-law, is said to be among the Republicans considering Senate runs there.

"The biggest winner of this whole impeachment trial is Lara Trump," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "My dear friend Richard Burr, who I like and have been friends to a long time, just made Lara Trump almost the certain nominee for the Senate seat in North Carolina to replace him if she runs."

Even within McConnell's conference, there's little appetite for a clear break from Trump.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican who could be facing one of the party's toughest reelection races in his swing state in 2022, told Wisconsin radio host Jay Weber on Monday that he "didn't particularly like" McConnell's speech criticizing the former president.

He acknowledged that Trump's approach to politics "rubs some people in the Republican Party the wrong way," but said those people are a narrow minority of the party's electorate.

"I think they think this is an opportunity to purge our movement of any semblance of any connection to Trump again. They're just wrong," Johnson said.

In key swing states, Republicans have largely argued that a wholesale rejection of Trump and everything he stood for would alienate the party's base -- and that a version of his message can succeed in the 2022 midterms.

Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the Cobb County GOP and a candidate to chair the Georgia Republican Party, said that Trump will define the party for a generation much like Ronald Reagan did before him, and that the party's path back into power involves a "kinder, gentler" version of Trump's approach.

"I think where a lot of Republicans are saying let's move on, it's more about Donald Trump's personality than his policy. I think there's a lot of Republicans -- and quite frankly, a lot of Democrats -- who can't separate the policy from the personality," he said. "Donald Trump has probably one of the best messages of conservatism that we've seen in more of a generation as a party, but maybe he wasn't the best messenger for it."

However, in Georgia, Trump could be poised to play an outsized role in the state in 2022 -- with the governor's office, a Senate seat and other key races on the ballot. Trump has repeatedly signaled his desire to retaliate against Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP officials who refused to back his false claims about voter fraud.

Shepherd said there is "immense danger" in Republicans looking backward, rather than going into what have historically proven to be favorable conditions for midterm elections, when the party out of power typically gains seats.

"If the Republicans are engaged fighting each other, trying to relitigate the 2020 election, then we are going to miss the focus -- which should be defining what has happened under two years of Democrat leadership in Washington, DC," he said.

Others said the GOP is poised to lose national and statewide races in otherwise winnable battlegrounds if it remains tethered to an unpopular former president.

"Trumpism is not winning in the country overall. They're going to have a reality check when they get to the national level and they realize they're not winning," said Olivia Troye, an anti-Trump former homeland security adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence and now the director of the Republican Accountability Project.

She argued that the GOP needs a full break from Trump, rather than trying to temper his excesses without taking action -- as the Senate could have -- to sideline him.

"What you're really doing is you're ostracizing a lot of this population who are the more moderate Republicans who do not want to be lumped in with the Trumpism. So until you solve that problem, you can't claim to be standing for like, trade and smaller government."

Such a break seems largely impossible in the current political climate, though: Conservative media organizations have largely rewarded those who defend Trump with airtime, and figures who have vocally supported Trump's false election claims -- including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene -- have seen fundraising boosts.

"The path of least resistance for Republicans is to unify as the loyal opposition and hope the natural political gravity of the midterm cycle takes hold. But the demand problem on the right makes this tension difficult to elide -- there's a vocal market for defending Trump, and it's going to be served one way or another, turning primaries into de facto referenda, and putting those deemed insufficiently loyal in a tough position," said Republican strategist Liam Donovan.

It's too soon to tell whether voters will reward or penalize the few figures within the GOP who have been unapologetically critical of Trump, including Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican who voted to impeach Trump, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict him and is up for reelection next year.

The appetites of Trump himself and his family members to campaign in person, cut ads and fundraise for 2022 candidates is not yet clear. And the course of the coronavirus pandemic -- including distribution of vaccines, school reopening and more -- could prove to be a much larger factor.

"The primary battles could yield candidates or divisions that squander otherwise winnable races, but so much of 2022 will hinge on the macro question of whether voters feel like life is back to normal," Donovan said. "Either way, the next year or so will give us a good indication of whether the GOP is ready or even willing to turn the page."

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