Republicans ride the Trump train — down to the democracy-rattling end

Only five per cent of Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump in the most serious charge against a president ever. Yet there are still trouble spots ahead for Trump, starting with an eventual Senate trial that could shape the next chapter in U.S. politics.

Fewer than 5 per cent of House Republicans voted to impeach. But the long-term outlook gets messier for Trump

A member of the National Guard protects the U.S. Capitol building, heavily fortified after the Jan. 6 attack, during Wednesday's impeachment vote. While polls suggest most Americans want Trump impeached, most Republican lawmakers are still backing the president. (Brandon Bell/Reuters)

They stuck with him, right down to his presidency's democracy-rattling end. 

Fewer than five per cent of Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to impeach Donald Trump, a president now accused of the gravest charge laid against any American commander-in-chief: inciting an insurrection.

It's too soon to conclude the Senate will once again spare Trump conviction and punishment, as it did during his first impeachment trial last February, because Wednesday's developments point to some trouble spots for him.

Yet here's what we do already know: Trump will complete his term unimpeded, because the Republican-led Senate says it won't take up the impeachment case until after the presidential transition on Jan. 20. A supermajority of two-thirds of the upper house, which will be evenly divided once the newly elected Democratic senators from Georgia are sworn in, is needed to convict an impeached president.

So this polarizing debate will loom over the early phase of Joe Biden's presidency, slowing adoption of legislation and threatening to cast its shadow over Biden's inauguration-day theme: "America United."

A pre-recorded video of U.S. President Donald Trump addressing the U.S. Capitol riot is seen playing on a television in the White House briefing room in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Surveys say: Trump still controls this party

A number of new surveys show just how divided Americans are over Trump. They also illustrate a clear cause for fear among any Republicans who cross Trump: the reaction of his voters, the base who votes in Republican primaries.

Trump's popularity may have taken a bit of a hit in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, and polls say most Americans do want him impeached, but the overwhelming majority of Republicans continue supporting him.

The president's critics grappled Wednesday with the implications of what this immutable support means for the viability of American democracy.

WATCH | Trump first U.S. president to be impeached twice:

Trump impeached for 2nd time

2 years ago
Duration 4:12
The U.S. House of Representatives has impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, over his role in last week's attack on Capitol Hill, but authorities across the country are now bracing for more possible violence from an Trump army of supporters, one week before president-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

A Democrat who worked for the United Nations in conflict zones, congresswoman Sara Jacobs, said one lesson about political violence is it spreads if left unpunished.

Another Democrat, Gerry Connolly of Virginia, asked the House of Representatives: "Is there any depravity too low? Is there any outrage too far? Is there any blood and violence too much, to turn hearts and minds in this body?" 

Fears for personal safety

Connolly called it a moment of truth.

It was also reportedly a moment of fear for some Republicans. And that points to what's said to be a darker reason so few Republicans voted to impeach.

Lawmakers arrived for the vote in a heavily fortified Capitol, where soldiers were quartered for the first time since the Civil War.

Two members of Congress, one Republican and one Democrat, and some reporters, said they heard from Republican lawmakers who privately expressed fear of voting to impeach out of concern they might be physically harmed by Trump supporters.

A Republican member of Congress, Brian Mast of Florida, gives troops a tour in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Colorado Democrat Jason Crow said he saw a couple of them break down in tears, paralyzed by terror about being attacked. He told the chamber that the moment required courage: "Leadership is hard. It's time to impeach."

But the longer-term takeaway about what comes next for Republicans is hardly etched in stone. That will only become clearer over the coming weeks.

There's an alternative way, for starters, to perceive the partisan breakdown in Wednesday's vote. 

On the one hand only 10 Republicans voted to impeach the president. On the other hand, that's an American record. 

10 Republicans still broke a record

Trump will not just enter the history books as the only president impeached twice; he's also drawn more votes to impeach from his own party than any other president in history.

In 1868, no Democrat voted to impeach Andrew Johnson; in 1998, five Democrats voted to impeach Bill Clinton; no Republicans in the House voted to impeach Trump in 2019. (Senator Mitt Romney was the lone Republican who voted to convict Trump at the end of the impeachment trial.)

Yet on Wednesday, a record number of Republicans sanctioned their party's most popular figure — some of those lawmakers were old, some were young, some from heavily conservative districts, some from swing districts.

Adam Kinzinger of Illinois is now being deluged with threats of a primary in his Illinois district from voters livid that he helped impeach Trump.

But the 41-year-old Air Force veteran said he felt at peace, having done the right thing.

Jaime Herrera Beutler, a 42-year-old recently re-elected for the sixth time in a conservative-leaning Washington State district, said she was choosing not to be afraid as she cast her vote against Trump.

Liz Cheney, right, was the highest-ranking Republican to back the impeachment resolution co-authored by Democrat Jamie Raskin, seen here. Some Republicans now want her ousted from her leadership role. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

"Fear is our enemy," she said. 

"Truth sets us free from fear.... I am not choosing a side. I'm choosing truth. It's the only way to defeat fear."

Another Washington State Republican said he blamed everyone for American politics degenerating to this point — including himself.

Dan Newhouse said he should have stood up earlier to Trump's lies about the election he lost.

"This is a sad day in our republic," he said.

But he said Democrats should also have been more vocal when rioters and anarchists in his state and elsewhere caused damage during protests last summer.

A number of Republicans mentioned destructive Black Lives Matter protests as evidence of what they perceive as double-standard against their supporters.

Several unknowns in Senate case

Another reason it's too early to draw permanent conclusions from Wednesday's vote is that we don't yet know how the Senate will react.

Trump might still become the first impeached president to be convicted. The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, has expressed uncharacteristic annoyance with Trump lately, and few senators are vocally defending him.

Those senators have slightly less reason to fear a primary challenge, as their terms last six years compared to two in the House. 

And a few intend to run for president in 2024, which creates an incentive to see Trump forever banished from electoral politics.

National Guard members sleep under a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a plaque commemorating the last time troops were stationed inside the Capitol: the Civil War more than a century and a half ago. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Senators must choose the penalty for Trump if they choose to convict him and the possibilities include disqualifying him from ever seeking office again.

The path to conviction could be made simpler in a way illustrated by Wednesday's House of Representatives vote: four Republicans skipped the vote, offering a variety of justifications.

And a few Republican no-shows in the Senate would make it easier to reach the required constitutional threshold to convict, which is not two-thirds of all senators, but two-thirds of senators present.

There's another way things will get harder for Trump. His party will no longer set the Senate rules like it did during his first impeachment.

Democrats have just won control of the chamber, which means they can call witnesses; grill Trump's allies; and gather evidence from the Justice Department, which they will also soon control.

Argument against Senate trial as unconstitutional 

Yet some Republicans might argue the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is already out of office. 

Twice in American history, the Senate has heard an impeachment trial for someone no longer holding office, both involving corruption cases, one in 1799 for U.S. Sen. William Blount, and in 1876 for war secretary William Belknap. 

A retired judge, Michael Luttig, however, recently argued in The Washington Post that a post-presidential trial is unlikely to be legitimate under his interpretation of the wording of the Constitution's impeachment clause, Article I, Section 3, Clause 7.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided over her second vote to impeach President Donald Trump. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

One more showdown on the Republican side will help illustrate just how much pull Trump has in his post-presidency.

One of Trump's staunchest backers on Capitol Hill, Jim Jordan, has reportedly made a move to unseat congresswoman Liz Cheney from her senior leadership role in the Republican Party after she voted to impeach.

Kinzinger said her vote has gained Cheney respect in the party.

Yet the Republicans who agreed with her were mostly discreet Wednesday. More vocal were those diehards riding the Trump train right to the very end.

People like Doug LaMalfa, who accused Democrats of trying to silence half the country by humiliating Trump: "You hate him," he said.

Andy Biggs of Arizona referred to Democrats as "the beast" trying to devour Trump, harbouring an unsatiated craving to crush him through investigations, false allegations and impeachment.

"Your craving was never a Biden victory, nor even a Trump defeat. … You don't merely seek victory — you seek obliteration of your nemesis," he said.

A young pro-Trump congressman from Florida, Matt Gaetz, also derided Democrats for remaining silent when rioters burned city buildings and looted businesses.

Gaetz said Trump has weathered unprecedented hatred — "from big media, big tech and big egos."

Around the same time Wednesday morning, the Trump campaign crackled momentarily back to life. 

Trump's campaign texted this message to supporters on Wednesday — trying to keep pressure on Republican politicians to support him or face consequences. (CBC News)

The president's political team, which has been mostly silent during the impeachment fight, sent supporters a text message with internal poll numbers suggesting Republicans who vote for impeachment would see support plummet from their own party voters.

Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller spent the day tweeting support for lawmakers like Gaetz — and stories about threats to unseat Cheney and others who crossed Trump.

The president couldn't tweet himself as Twitter banned his account, alleging he had been stoking violence.

Instead, Trump released a video through the White House late Wednesday warning against violent acts. 

WATCH | Trump says his 'true supporters' don't support violence:


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.