Even after winning acquittal in his second Senate impeachment trial, former President Donald Trump's legacy will remain scarred by the deadly attack that his loyalists waged on the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats used vivid, previously unreleased footage to cement Trump's role in sparking the riot to ensure the insurrection hangs over Trump's political future. Seven Republicans voted to convict him, but the former president is reveling in the enduring loyalty of the Republican Party, which showed it isn't ready to quit him.
Trump celebrated the result, saying he is charting his political future, but it's unclear how Republicans will approach him in the coming months. The GOP remains leery of alienating his many fervent supporters and state parties are fiercely defending him, but polls show that more than half of Americans think Trump should be barred from serving in office again.
"While the final vote did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge is not in dispute," President Joe Biden said in a statement late Saturday. "This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended."
Few of the 43 Republicans who voted to acquit Trump on Saturday defended his actions, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell delivered an extraordinary rebuke of the most popular figure in his own party, seeking to ensure Trump will be inextricably tied to the riot.
"A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name. 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. He was the only one who could," McConnell said on the Senate floor. Yet he didn't, even though McConnell noted Trump knew Vice President Mike Pence was in danger.
He also noted Trump faces potential ongoing legal scrutiny. "He didn't get away with anything yet. Yet," McConnell said. "We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also hammered home the idea that Trump will forever be remembered for the events of Jan. 6 that left five people dead.
"Let it live on in infamy, a stain on Donald John Trump that can never, never be washed away," the New York Democrat said.
But Trump made it clear minutes after the vote that he plans to waste no time turning the acquittal to his political advantage.
Trump issued a statement vowing that the "historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun." He said he will "have much to share" in the months ahead and decried the latest attempt to punish him as "yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country."
Trump is dangling the possibility that he will seek office again in 2024 and help Republicans retake control of Congress in 2022 by challenging any GOP candidates he believes were disloyal to him in the impeachment process or the election aftermath. He will likely also support primary challenges against the 10 House members who voted to impeach him and the seven senators who voted to convict him.
His oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted after the verdict, "Let's impeach RINOs from the Republican Party," a reference to the term Republicans In Name Only.
There is ample evidence that his messaging strategy -- that he survived three "witch hunts," including the Russia investigation and his first impeachment for seeking election help from the Ukrainian president -- will bolster his standing with core supporters who relish seeing him beat the establishment.
The leaders of the Republican National Committee and many state parties remain loyal to him and support candidates like him even though the trial showed stunning acts of disloyalty to lieutenants like Pence and House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy. After Saturday's vote, the Louisiana state GOP executive committee voted to censure GOP Senator Bill Cassidy for his vote to convict Trump.
The acquittal means that Democrats have now made Trump a martyr, said Brad Parscale, Trump's former campaign manager.
"They are about to give him superpowers," Parscale tweeted on Feb. 6 before the start of the Senate impeachment trial.
Riot will be first paragraph of Trump's obituary
Some Republican strategists say Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election and the ensuing Capitol attack will overshadow his stunning rise to power and his achievements such as the 2017 tax law or reshaping the federal judiciary, including three new Supreme Court justices.
Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who runs the pro-Trump Great America Political Action Committee, likened it to Lyndon Johnson passing landmark civil rights legislation but being defined by Vietnam, or Richard Nixon opening diplomatic relations with China but being remembered for Watergate.
"Certainly it's going to be the first paragraph or two in his obituary and the historical annals," Rollins said of the riot. "Historically, it's going to be very damaging. And obviously as someone who supported him, I'm saddened by all that, but it's real."
Trump ended his term with the lowest job approval of his presidency, 29%, amid a surge in negative sentiment about his post-election conduct, according to a January survey by the Pew Research Centre. And 68% of Americans don't want him to remain a major political figure, according to the January 8-12 survey of 5,360 U.S. adults.
Yet a full 57% of Republican or Republican-leaning voters in the same survey said he should continue to be a major political figure for years to come, and 64% of those voters say he either definitely or probably won the 2020 election he falsely claimed was stolen.
Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said he doesn't expect the riot and impeachment will matter to Trump loyalists because what happened at the Capitol was consistent with the former president's past behaviour.
"It was an unbelievable event, but we've been seeing unbelievable events ever since the man came down the escalator at Trump Tower," Cook said, referring to Trump's 2015 campaign kick-off when the country got the first taste of his rhetoric, with him saying Mexico was sending rapists and criminals as immigrants to the U.S.
Trump still enjoys an intensely loyal base and the vote to acquit highlighted elected officials' fear of angering them. A NBC News poll after the insurrection showed that Republican voters were evenly split -- 46% to 46% on whether their loyalty was first with Trump, or the GOP.
The January 6 insurrection should have allowed the Republican Party to break from the former president, said Evan McMullin, a former chief policy director to the Republican Conference who has been trying to engineer a breakup between the party and Trump since running against him as an independent in 2016.
McMullin and 120 Republican leaders and disaffected voters have discussed forming a new party or faction to change the direction of the GOP. He said while the insurrection would ordinarily spell the end of any Democratic leader, it's clear that a strong majority of the Republican Party still backs Trump.
Trump's statement Saturday made clear he plans to use that support.
"We have so much work ahead of us, and soon we will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant, and limitless American future."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.