President Donald Trump’s iron grip over the Republican Party slipped on Wednesday, as a small but vocal group of his fellow party members — including No. 3 House Republican Liz Cheney — voted to impeach him in a historic rebuke that drew battle lines in the coming war for the soul of the GOP.
As the party plots a course to regain control of Congress in two years — and the White House in 2024 — some senior elected officials see value in purging its once-unquestioned leader.
But walking away from Trump and his followers might not be as easy as that, especially when no new standard-bearer for the GOP has yet emerged. That poses a dilemma for Republican senators who must decide if they’re prepared to level the ultimate sanction on Trump and effectively excommunicate him from a party whose base remains remarkably loyal to him.
Even if Trump loses his political influence out of office and without the bullhorn of social media, the party’s leadership at the national and state levels is controlled by his allies. Some 74 million Americans voted for him in November. The question now is how many of those voters will remain loyal to him — and simply retreat from politics — or to the Republican Party, and remain a force.
Republicans such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney are willing to oppose Trump but could struggle in a party still dominated by Trump loyalists. Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are being shamed for their role as Trump lieutenants in trying to overturn the results of November’s election, but don’t have the star power with his base.
Some rioters at the Capitol chanted for Vice President Mike Pence to be put to death, showing how reviled he now is among some of Trump’s core supporters. But he earned goodwill in some corners of the party by refusing Trump’s demand to undo Joe Biden’s victory, though he will long be criticized in other quarters for his unblinking loyalty to Trump.
Former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has balanced carefully between both worlds but, like Cruz and Hawley, is unlikely to inspire the kind of passion that Trump inspired in his base.
“The party is basically looking at how does it move on,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman. “It’s not that it’s anti-Trump, it’s just for all the successes and victories he had on a policy front, his demeanor and style has caused a tremendous amount of angst among many — and people are trying to redefine what the Republican Party is going to look like.”
More than eight in 10 Republicans say that Trump should not be impeached or resign, according to a new CBS News/YouGov poll. Almost three quarters of Republicans, 72%, say Trump should complete his term because he did nothing wrong to warrant his removal or resignation, the survey shows. Only 23% of Republicans said that Trump’s words and actions leading up to the riot at the Capitol encouraged violence.
“Almost all the condemnation from the GOP about the events of Jan. 6 has come from the governing wing of the party, not the populist wing,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster whose clients have included Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Jim Inhofe and John Kennedy.
“Donald Trump did not create Trumpism. He tapped into it and exacerbated it but he did not create it,” he said in an interview last week.
In a video message released by the White House after the impeachment vote, Trump disavowed the violence carried out by his supporters and urged them to “ease tensions” — a message that appeared aimed at Republican senators considering whether to remove him from office. He did not mention the House vote.
His statement came after some senior GOP senators, including Rob Portman of Ohio, had called on the president to address the nation and call off his supporters before they perpetrated further acts of terror.
Yet even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who has backed Trump on policy issues and remained largely silent on his controversial statements, left open the possibility he might vote to convict after hearing the arguments once the issue is in his chamber. If Trump were convicted, a separate Senate vote could block him from holding federal office again.
A cadre of 10 House Republicans, led by Cheney, daughter of former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney and chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, voted with 222 Democrats to impeach Trump for his role in the assault on the U.S. Capitol as it met to ratify Biden’s victory.
“There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” Cheney said in statement on Tuesday.
Some 197 House Republicans voted against impeachment and senators such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina criticized Senate leadership for suggesting they might support a vote to convict. Cheney is facing calls from her own caucus to resign her leadership position for supporting the impeachment.
Almost two-thirds of House Republicans and eight GOP senators still voted to overturn legally certified Electoral College votes as Trump demanded, many fearing Trump’s Twitter wrath and the political power he wielded to encourage primary challenges to them.
Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona said even if Democrats succeed in impeaching and convicting Trump, it would only make him stronger politically.
“Yours will be a Pyrrhic victory, for instead of stopping the Trump train, his movement will grow stronger for you will have made him a martyr,” Biggs said during the impeachment debate.
A survey conducted by Trump’s campaign pollster found that Republicans and Trump supporters in battleground states hold a dim view of lawmakers who vote to impeach the president, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg News. Eight in 10 Americans who cast their 2020 ballot for Trump, as well as three-quarters of self-identified Republicans, say they would be less likely to vote for those members of Congress.
“President Trump is the heart and soul of the Republican Party, and his supporters have made clear they will oppose any Republican voting to impeach him,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said in a text message.
Trump’s ability to egg on supporters who then took part in an insurrection shows his power over the GOP base, which isn’t going away when he leaves office, said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“For anybody who’s been around political power, it doesn’t just wane,” Madden said. “It requires competition for that power. And so if there are people within the party that really want to take on his influence, they have to do it in a very broad and sustained effort to confront him.”
Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, pointed to all the episodes during the past four years when observers predicted that Trump’s support in the party would wane, such as his first impeachment at the end of 2019. That support only increased, and his brand is now the Republican brand, Zelizer said.
“You have just a very polarized and divided Republican party,” said Antonia Ferrier, a former McConnell aide. But “make no mistake,” she said. “It’s Donald Trump’s Republican Party right now.”