What Rand Paul’s Procedural Failure Says About Donald Trump’s Survival

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Sen. Rand Paul lost the very first procedural vote of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. But you’d never know it from the way he crowed afterward.

“The impeachment trial is dead on arrival,” the Kentucky Republican and regular Trump ally declared yesterday after his attempt to short-circuit the impeachment trial on the grounds it is unconstitutional failed by a 55-45 vote.

He’s probably correct in his diagnosis. The tactic failed, but the considerable Republican support behind it will make a conviction highly unlikely. The opthamologist seems to have a clear eye on the politics of Washington — and the Republican Party — at the moment. Even in exile at his Florida estate, Trump wields considerable power within the GOP. He and his allies have not been shy about threatening to punish Trumpism’s deserters. All 10 House Republicans who joined the Democrats in voting to impeach Trump on a single charge of inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have already drawn primary challengers. That’s not to mention the personal taunts from Trump family members and close allies, who may end up spending a lot of energy in the coming years extracting a political price for such disloyalty.

Over the last three weeks the Senate, there had been flashes of hope for Democrats and Trump critics that maybe the fever was breaking and the GOP was righting its course. Outbursts of anger broke through the steely faces of lawmakers. Lost on no one was the fact that the article of impeachment was coming through the iconic door of the Senate where insurrectionists loitered while waving a Confederate flag — a tableau that even the Civil War never brought under the Capitol’s roofs. The chairs where they were sitting were overrun by a violent mob. The “murder the media” graffiti is gone, but the threat remains.

The Capitol is many things to different people. But to the Senators considering their votes — both yesterday and when the trial starts on Feb. 9 — the building is now both office complex and crime scene. That violation has weighed heavily on several lawmakers who are having a difficult time pretending to be neutral as the jurors in the case they are about to hear presented by the nine House members who are doubling as prosecutors.

Officially, now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was not keeping track of the vote. He is no fan of Trump and hasn’t spoken to the man since he rallied his grassroots troops near the Washington Monument and sent them marching on the Capitol in a last-minute ditch to overturn the legitimate results of the Nov. 3 election. McConnell had been a fierce critic of Trump during his final days in office, saying the President “provoked” the mob.

But when given a chance to go on-the-record with a vote, he opted to join Paul — a fellow Kentuckian and often a troublemaker in McConnell’s otherwise-disciplined caucus — in saying the trial was illegitimate because Trump was now a private citizen and thus immune from impeachment.

In the end, only five Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in saying they had a constitutional right to hear the evidence that was presented by the House prosecutors. All understand that they cannot remove Trump from office; the calendar hitting Jan. 20 did that for them. But for Democrats and a handful of Republicans, it’s about holding Trump to account for his alleged crime and potentially blocking him from ever returning to federal office again.

For other Republicans, even those who may be privately seething about the Capitol siege, the political threat posed by lending support to the Democrats’ effort is twofold, as we’ve discussed here before. For one, Trump’s power remains strong. And secondly, their base back home doesn’t much care about holding Trump accountable or the precedent set by a crooked War Secretary from yesteryear who raced to the White House to resign before an impeachment but nonetheless found himself on trial in the Senate. Today’s base is thinking about a pandemic, an economic crisis and a racial-justice reckoning. None are improved by a Senate debating constitutional nuances.

That’s what Rand Paul understands better than most. Ultimately, the facts didn’t matter to most Republicans. Forty-five of them, including Paul, stood with Trump, who is now sitting on a golf cart in Florida. For Trump to be convicted and banned forever, Democrats probably need a dozen more Republicans to join with the five from yesterday. And that seems a mighty uphill climb absent any striking new revelations or arguments. Apparently, in the words of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “We came close to half of the House nearly dying” isn’t sufficient.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com