Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday said that former President Donald Trump’s actions after the presidential election were “unconscionable” despite his vote to acquit the former president of the impeachment charge against him.
McConnell, R-Ky., had previously made clear his objections to how Trump behaved in falsely claiming that he won the presidential election and in telling his supporters to march to the Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress was meeting in joint session to certify the election results.
But he’d played his cards close to his chest on how he would vote on the impeachment charge that Trump incited an insurrection until Saturday morning. McConnell said Saturday that Trump was wrong, that the Senate was right to avoid claiming jurisdiction to convict Trump and that Trump can still be held accountable in criminal courts.
“There’s no question… that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” he said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”
He added: “These criminals were carrying his banners. Hanging his flags and screaming their loyalty to him. It was obvious that only President Trump could end this… Former aides publicly begged him to do so. Loyal allies frantically called the administration. The president did not act swiftly. He did not do his job… Instead according to public reports he watched television happily as the chaos unfolded, kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election.”
McConnell, however, said that the Senate could not vote to convict Trump because of the constraints placed on it by the Constitution.
“I believe the best constitutional reading shows that Article II, Section 4 exhausts the set of persons who can legitimately be impeached, tried or convicted,” McConnell said. “It’s the president, the vice president and civil officers. We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen.”
But McConnell foreshadowed that Trump still could face accountability for his actions in criminal courts. Indeed, there is a criminal investigation in Georgia into whether Trump broke any laws with his phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which he asked Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to hand the state to Trump.
“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while in office,” McConnell. “He didn’t get away with anything yet. We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation.”
McConnell added that the Senate’s decision to convict Trump does not say that the Senate endorses Trump’s actions, but that “it simply says that senators did what the former president failed to do. We put our constitutional duty first.”
Critics of McConnell have noted that the then-majority leader did not publicly acknowledge that President Biden won the presidential election until weeks after the result was clear. But McConnell defenders say that in the interim, Trump was pursuing election challenges in the courts that he legitimately had the right to pursue. It’s after it became clear those would not succeed that McConnell congratulated Biden on his victory.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called McConnell’s comments Saturday “disingenuous” and said he triad to have it “every which way.”
Trump’s second impeachment was spurred by the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Trump, after months of making false claims that he’d won the presidential election, called a rally in Washington, D.C., with his supporters for the same day Congress and then-Vice President Mike Pence were meeting in a joint session to certify the results of the election.
Trump, at the rally, repeated his false election claims and he and advisers used pitched rhetoric, riling up the large crowd. Trump at one point in the rally told his followers to “peacefully and patriotically” march to the Capitol, a comment his defenders point to as part of the reason why he does not bear responsibility for the ransacking of the Capitol.
But House impeachment managers argued that one comment did not cancel out the balance of Trump’s other comments in that speech or in the proceeding months. They said he bore fundamental responsibility for the mob that breached the Capitol and forced hundreds of lawmakers and the former vice president into hiding while chanting “hang Mike Pence,” among other things.