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Democrats seek political win despite low odds of Trump conviction

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Donald Trump has not spoken in public in more than three weeks, an uncharacteristically long stretch of silence for the former president who built his political career on nonstop social media posts and television appearances.

But his voice was omnipresent in Washington this week, as Democrats repeatedly used Trump’s own words against him. They deployed hundreds of tweets and videos to burnish their argument that he must be convicted at his Senate impeachment trial for inciting the deadly January 6 siege of the US Capitol.

Many Republicans were unimpressed. Rick Scott, a senator from Florida, spent much of Thursday doodling on blank maps of Asia and Europe at his desk in the Senate chamber, while others distracted themselves by reading books or their iPads. Some of Scott’s colleagues left the room for extended periods of time.

Their abject disinterest underscored what many Democrats and Republicans already know to be a fait accompli: Trump won’t be convicted.

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Trump’s all but certain acquittal — which could come as soon as this weekend, after the former president’s lawyers make their own arguments — will be a blow to opponents who wanted to see the former president convicted and barred from holding future office.

But Democrats say the effort will not have been in vain.

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“There are two courts here: there is the United States Senate . . . and the court of public opinion,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist who added the impeachment trial would “haunt” Republican senators for years to come.

In two days of painstakingly detailed arguments broadcast on big TV networks, Democratic impeachment managers painted a picture of a president who had long condoned rightwing extremism and actively encouraged the mobs that broke into the Capitol to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

Their speeches were punctuated by unseen footage of the carnage at the legislature captured by security cameras within the Capitol complex, including graphic clips of police officers being crushed by crowds and lawmakers narrowly avoiding what might have been deadly run-ins with rioters.

“This is one of the most dynamic, convincing presentations I have ever seen,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “If this were an impartial jury, we would all be betting on a conviction.”

Yet under the US constitution, two-thirds of the Senate — which is currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans — must find Trump guilty in order for him to be convicted.

In a sign of how unlikely that is, all but six Republicans backed a motion earlier this week to throw out the trial on the grounds that it is unconstitutional to try a former president.

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Analysts say the party’s stance signals the grip that Trump still has on their base of supporters, and fear among Republican lawmakers who worry he will torpedo their chances of re-election by endorsing challengers who are further to the right.

A nationwide CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in the days leading up to the trial showed 56 per cent of voters thought Trump’s words and actions “encouraged violence at the Capitol”. The same share said the Senate should convict the former president.

But Americans were sharply divided when it came to political party affiliation. Nine in 10 Democrats said Trump should be convicted, compared to 53 per cent of independents and just 17 per cent of Republicans.

Sabato said he expected public opinion to shift after the trial.

“The Senate isn’t going to move, in all probability, but the public is,” he said. “You have got a slice of the Republican party that, maybe for the first time, can see that this man has been a disaster and, if they allow him to come back, they are going to go down the river with him.”

Marsh agreed: “Independent voters in this country have rejected Donald Trump, rejected what happened on January 6, and will reject anyone who defends him,” she said.

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While Trump still enjoys the support of the rightwing base of the GOP, there are early indications he is losing ground among more moderate Republicans. A chunk of these voters abandoned the party in November, leading to Trump’s loss of the White House and Democrats’ gains in a handful of key Senate races, notably in Georgia and Arizona.

A poll conducted by Republican pollster Echelon Insights after Biden’s inauguration found 45 per cent of Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents wanted Trump to run again for president in 2024. That represented a 20-point drop from when the same question was asked in December, before the January 6 attack.

Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska and one of a handful of GOP lawmakers seen as likely to convict, told reporters on Capitol Hill that she thought Trump had ruined his chances of any future role in politics. The Democratic prosecution had sealed the deal.

“After the American public sees the whole story laid out here . . . I don’t see how Donald Trump could be re-elected to the presidency,” she said. “I just don’t see that.”

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