WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump's supporters in the Senate rallied Sunday around the former president before his impeachment trial, dismissing it as a waste of time and arguing the former president's speech before the U.S. Capitol insurrection does not make him responsible for the Jan. 6 violence.
"If being held accountable means being impeached by the House and being convicted by the Senate, the answer to that is no," said Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, making clear his belief that Trump should and will be acquitted. Asked if Congress could consider other punishment, such as censure, Wicker said the Democratic- led House had that option earlier but rejected it in favor of impeaching him.
"That ship has sailed," he said.
The Senate is set to launch the impeachment trial Tuesday to consider the charge that Trump's words to protesters at a Capitol rally as well as claims of a stolen presidential election provoked a mob to storm the Capitol.
Five people died as a result of the melee, including a police officer.
Many senators, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, immediately denounced the violence and pointed blame at Trump. Following the riot, Wicker said Americans "will not stand for this kind of attack on the rule of law" and said "we must prosecute" those who undermine democracy.
However, with Trump now gone from the presidency, Republicans have shown little interest in taking further action, such as an impeachment conviction that could lead to barring him from running for future office. Those partisan divisions appear to be hardening ahead of Trump's trial.
On Sunday, Wicker described Trump's impeachment trial as a "meaningless messaging partisan exercise." When asked if Trump's conduct should be more deserving of impeachment than President Bill Clinton's, whom Wicker voted to impeach, he said: "I'm not conceding that President Trump incited an insurrection."
Republican Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, dismissed Trump's trial as a farce with "zero chance of conviction," describing Trump's words to protesters to "fight like hell" as Congress was voting to ratify Joe Biden's presidential victory as "figurative" speech.
"If we're going to criminalize speech, and somehow impeach everybody who says, 'Go fight to hear your voices heard,' I mean really we ought to impeach Chuck Schumer then," Paul said, referring to the now Democratic Senate majority leader and his criticisms of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
"He went to the Supreme Court, stood in front of the Supreme Court and said specifically, 'Hey Gorsuch, hey Kavanaugh, you've unleashed a whirlwind. And you're going to pay the price.'"
Paul noted Chief Justice John Roberts had declined to preside over this week's impeachment proceeding because Trump was no longer president. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, will preside over the trial as Senate president pro tempore.
"It is a farce, it is unconstitutional. But more than anything it's unwise, and going to divide the country," Paul said.
Last month, Paul forced a vote to set aside the trial as unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office, which legal experts said is disputable. However, the vote suggested the near impossibility in reaching a conviction in a Senate where Democrats hold 50 seats but a two-thirds vote — or 67 senators — would be needed to convict Trump. Forty-four Republican senators sided with Paul and voted to oppose holding an impeachment trial at all. Five Republican senators joined with Democrats to reject Paul's motion: Mitt Romney, of Utah; Ben Sasse, of Nebraska; Susan Collins, of Maine; Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska; and Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania.
Some Republicans have said the vote doesn't "bind" them into voting a particular way on conviction, with Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana, saying Sunday he would listen carefully to the evidence.
"You did have 45 Republican senators vote to suggest that they didn't think it was appropriate to conduct a trial, so you can infer how likely it is that those folks will vote to convict," said Toomey, who has made clear he believes Trump committed "impeachable offenses."
"I still think the best outcome would have been for the president to resign" before he left office, he said. "Obviously he chose not to do that."