WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump was acquitted on Wednesday in his US Senate impeachment trial, saved by fellow Republicans who rallied to protect him nine months before he asks voters in a deeply divided America to give him a second White House term.
The businessman-turned-politician, 73, survived only the third presidential impeachment trial in US history - just like the two other impeached presidents - in his turbulent presidency’s darkest chapter. Trump now plunges into an election season that promises to further polarize the country.
Trump was acquitted largely along party lines on two articles of impeachment approved by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on Dec. 18. The votes to convict Trump fell far short of the two-thirds majority required in the 100-seat Senate to remove him from office under the US Constitution.
The Senate voted 52-48 to acquit Trump of abuse of power stemming from his request that Ukraine investigate political rival Joe Biden, a contender for the Democratic nomination to face him in the Nov. 3 election. Republican Senator Mitt Romney joined the Democrats in voting to convict. No Democrat voted to acquit.
The Senate then voted 53-47 to acquit him of obstruction of Congress by blocking witnesses and documents sought by the House. Romney joined the rest of the Republican senators in voting to acquit on the obstruction charge. No Democrat voted to acquit.
On each of the two charges, the senators stood at their desks on the Senate floor to vote one by one, with US Chief Justice John Roberts presiding.
Trump watched the Senate vote with top aides in a White House dining room that he uses as a private study, a senior administration official said. Trump said he would deliver a public statement at noon (1700 GMT) on Thursday “to discuss our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!”
On Twitter, the president posted a video showing Trump campaign signs for future elections from 2024 onward ending with “Trump 4EVA.” The US Constitution limits a president to two elected four-year terms in office.
“President Trump has been totally vindicated and it’s now time to get back to the business of the American people,” Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans engineered a stripped-down trial with no witnesses or new evidence. Democrats called it a sham and a cover-up. Trump called the impeachment an attempted coup and a Democratic attempt to annul his 2016 election win.
The acquittal handed Trump his biggest victory yet over his Democratic adversaries in Congress. Democrats vowed to press ahead with investigations - they are fighting in court for access to his financial records - and voiced hope the facts unearthed during the impeachment process about his conduct would help persuade voters to make him a one-term president.
“No doubt, the president will boast he received total exoneration. But we know better. We know this wasn’t a trial by any stretch of the definition,” said Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat.
Trump’s job approval ratings have remained fairly consistent throughout his presidency and the impeachment process as his core conservative supporters - especially white men, rural Americans, evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics - stick with him.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted on Monday and Tuesday, showed 42% of American adults approved of his performance, while 54% disapproved. That was nearly the same as when the House launched its impeachment inquiry in September, when his approval stood at 43% and disapproval at 53%.
Trump faces no serious challengers for his party’s presidential nomination. He is poised to claim the nomination at the party’s convention in August and previewed in the State of the Union address on Tuesday his campaign themes such as American renewal, economic vitality and hardline immigration policies.
Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, broke with his party to vote to convict Trump on the abuse-of-power charge. Romney called the president’s actions in pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden “grievously wrong” and said Trump was “guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust.”
“What he did was not ‘perfect,’” Romney said on the Senate floor, as Trump has described his call with Ukraine’s president that was at the heart of the scandal. “No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values. Corrupting an election to keep one’s self in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”
Romney, a moderate and elder statesman in his party, became the first senator in US history to vote to convict a member of his own party at an impeachment trial.
McConnell, speaking to reporters after the vote, accused Democrats of using impeachment to try to gain an advantage in November’s elections for control of the Senate, but called the effort “a colossal political mistake.” He said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Romney’s vote.
Democrats expressed concern an acquittal would encourage a president who already challenges political norms, painting him as a threat to U.S. democracy and a demagogue who has acted lawlessly and exhibited a contempt for the powers of Congress and other institutions. They said the vision of nearly unlimited presidential power offered by Trump’s legal team placed any president above the law.
The trial formally began on Jan. 16. The Senate voted 51-49 last Friday to defeat the Democrats’ bid to call witnesses such as Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, with only two Republicans joining them.
In the previous presidential impeachment trials, Andrew Johnson was acquitted in 1868 in the aftermath of the American Civil War and Bill Clinton was acquitted in 1999 of charges stemming from a sex scandal.
Trump, now seeking a second four-year term, has been under the shadow of investigations for most of his presidency. The acquittal marked the second time in 10 months that he withstood an existential threat to his presidency.
In March 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller found insufficient evidence that Trump engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia in its interference on his behalf in the 2016 election. Mueller did not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice in seeking to impede the investigation but stopped short of concluding the president acted unlawfully.
Last July 25, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a phone call to “do us a favor” and open an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden and into a discredited theory beneficial to Russia that Ukraine colluded with Democrats to meddle in the 2016 election to harm Trump.
Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was US vice president. Trump accused the Bidens of corruption without offering substantiation. The Bidens denied wrongdoing.