Senate Republicans are warning that they no longer view former President Trump as the leader of the party amid growing signs that they are ready to turn the page after a chaotic four years.
Though only seven of the 50 GOP senators voted to find Trump “guilty” at the end of his second impeachment trial, Republicans, including those who voted to acquit, are plotting a future where Trump is no longer their center of gravity after years of dominating their day-to-day lives.
Trump is showing no signs of going away, saying in a statement after the trial concluded that the MAGA movement was just getting started. But Republicans say he has a diminished following and competition for the party’s top spot.
“He's made it pretty difficult to gain support. As you can tell, there's some support that will never go away, but I think that is a shrinking population and probably shrinks a little bit after this week,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who has aligned himself closely with Trump since being elected in 2018.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), asked about the chance that Trump would take a victory lap, floated that Trump should carefully consider his next steps.
“I think whatever the president intends to do in the future would take a lot of soul searching. ... I am more concerned about how we rebuild the party in a way that brings in more people to it,” added Braun, who voted to acquit Trump.
The shifting underscores how Trump's actions have deeply fractured Senate Republicans in the wake of Jan. 6, with GOP senators saying Trump shouldn’t feel vindicated just because he was acquitted of inciting an insurrection.
The shifts were on full display in recent days: Most Republicans have been careful not to defend Trump personally, members of the caucus have privately discussed whether there would be enough support to censure the president and the seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump spanned fiscal conservative to moderates.
“The president has very badly damaged his reputation. ... He’ll be remembered throughout history as the president who resorted to nonlegal steps to try to hold on to power,” Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), one of the seven GOP senators, said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said the vote was “absolutely not” Republicans endorsing Trump’s language and behavior. The former president urged his supporters to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6 while then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers were certifying President Biden’s Electoral College win.
“There’s no way. You can’t defend much of what happened in the last almost three months since the Nov. 3 election,” Thune said.
There’s little sign that Trump is listening, with the former president and his legal team making it clear that they view the acquittal as a vindication that could catapult him back into the public spotlight.
“This has been yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country. ... Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” Trump said in a statement.
And Republicans face headaches even as they are making it clear they want to move on. Trump retains an iron grip on a chunk of the party base — the same voters Republicans will need if they want to win back the House and Senate next year.
Outside the Senate, the divide among Republicans about how to handle the larger-than-life figure who proved toxic with swing voters but sparks deep loyalty among some Republicans is on full display.
Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who has 2024 ambitions of her own, made waves when Politico published an article quoting her stating that Trump “went down a path he shouldn't have, and we shouldn't have followed him, and we shouldn't have listened to him.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters that he was going to be meeting with Trump soon to discuss the future of the party. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Trump "remains the most popular Republican in the country," and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) was quickly censured for his vote to convict.
Thune, against whom Trump threatened to back a primary challenger, floated that the party needed to retain the former president’s voters in a way that’s “unifying and hopeful and optimistic.”
“The floor is starting to open a little bit now” for others, he said. “Certainly it seems clear that the former president wants to continue to have a role, but I think there’s going to be opportunities for new leaders to emerge who can articulate new vision.”
Trump has been the driving factor of the Republican Party since he rose to power. But since 2017, Republicans have lost the White House, House and Senate.
Several GOP senators indicated that they no longer believe Trump is the leader of the party. That position, they argued, is empty, and if Trump wants it back they believe he’ll face competition.
“Losing the bully pulpit is a big difference. I think that [we’re] already beginning to see some groundwork being laid by other people who aspire to succeed him,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Cornyn also signaled he thinks Trump will have a diminished role in the day-to-day conversation in the Capitol, saying, “We won’t keep talking about his tweets or what he did or did not do.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) also said the top spot was empty and that there would be competition for who would fill the power vacuum left by Trump.
“I think there’s competition for that role right now,” Inhofe said, adding that the former president was among the competitors.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pointed to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as the leader of the party now with Trump out of office.
McConnell, who is stylistically opposite a president he stuck closely to for four years, offered blistering criticism of Trump after the Senate’s vote, laying the blame for the Jan. 6 attack at the former president's feet.
"There's no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it," McConnell said.
McConnell also appeared to tip his hand to legal repercussions the former president could face, adding that Trump was “still liable” in the court system and “didn't get away with anything yet.”
Trump has flirted publicly with a 2024 presidential run, a move senators have privately discounted after the attack.
Cramer, while acknowledging many of his constituents still support Trump, said it would be “hard” for him to back the former president if he runs again. Murkowski said she didn’t see how Trump could become president again after the riot.
Several other GOP senators tried to sidestep the issue while not embracing a second White House bid.
“Whether he even runs, that's his decision. Whether he could get reelected, that would be the decision of the voters,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
“I think the president’s actions since the election have been extremely disappointing and not something that I have agreed with and not something that I ever want to see again,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). Rounds added that he thought it was too early to talk 2024 except to say there will be “some very qualified candidates.”
Rubio, who is also viewed as having White House ambitions, told reporters that he had too many “real” problems to opine on the potential that Trump could run again in 2024.