WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - United States President Donald Trump drew on staunch Republican support on Wednesday (Feb 5) to defeat the gravest threat yet to his three-year-old presidency, winning acquittal in the Senate of impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Only the third US leader ever placed on trial, Mr Trump readily defeated the effort to expel him from office for having illicitly sought help from Ukraine to bolster his 2020 re-election effort.
Despite being confronted with strong evidence, Republicans stayed loyal and mustered a majority of votes to clear the President of both charges - by 52 to 48 on the first, 53 to 47 on the second - falling far short of the two-thirds supermajority required for conviction.
"Two-thirds of the senators present not having pronounced him guilty, the Senate adjudges that respondent Donald John Trump, President of the United States, is not guilty as charged," said Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who presided over the trial.
One Republican, Senator Mitt Romney, a long-time Trump foe, risked White House wrath to vote alongside Democrats on the first count, saying Mr Trump was "guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust". He voted not guilty for the second.
The verdict, never truly in question since the House of Representatives formally impeached Mr Trump in December, cleared out a major hurdle for the President to fully plunge into his campaign for re-election in November.
Mr Trump had repeatedly dismissed the probe as a "hoax" and a "witch hunt" but argued he had the right as President to pressure Ukraine, while refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents.
On Twitter after the vote, the President posted a video showing Trump campaign signs for future elections from 2024 onward ending with “Trump 4EVA”. The US Constitution limits a president to two elected four-year terms in office.
Mr Trump said he would deliver a public statement at noon on Thursday “to discuss our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!”
“President Trump has been totally vindicated and it’s now time to get back to the business of the American people,” Mr Trump’s campaign manager, Mr Brad Parscale, said in a statement.
The White House said on Wednesday that President Trump had got “full vindication and exoneration” in his impeachment trial.
After the Senate acquittal, “the President is pleased to put this latest chapter of shameful behaviour by the Democrats in the past”, spokesman Stephanie Grisham said. However, she also accused the opposition Democrats of trying to influence the upcoming presidential election and asked: “Will there be no retribution?”
Democrats were dejected but not surprised, after an intense 78-day House investigation that faced public doubts and high-pressure stonewalling from the White House.
Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced the Senate’s acquittal and said he remains “an ongoing threat to American democracy”.
“Today, the President and Senate Republicans have normalised lawlessness and rejected the system of checks and balances of our Constitution,” she said in a statement issued after the Senate acquitted Mr Trump of both impeachment articles passed by the House.
“The President remains an ongoing threat to American democracy, with his insistence that he is above the law and that he can corrupt the elections if he wants to,” she said.
The vote closed a political chapter that many Democrats had been reluctant to enter.
Ms Pelosi originally rejected pressure early last year to impeach Mr Trump on evidence compiled by then special counsel Robert Mueller that he had obstructed the Russia election meddling investigation.
But her concerns that it was a hefty political risk for Democrats less than two years before national elections melted after new allegations surfaced in August that Mr Trump had pressured Ukraine for help for his 2020 campaign.
Though doubtful from the outset that they would win support from Senate Republicans, an investigation amassed with surprising speed strong evidence to support the allegations.
The evidence showed that from early in 2019, Mr Trump's private lawyer Rudy Giuliani and a close political ally, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, were scheming to pressure Kiev to help smear Democrats, including Mr Trump's potential 2020 rival Joe Biden, by opening investigations into them.
Mr Adam Schiff, who led the House investigation, said the fact that it came after Mr Mueller's investigation showed that Mr Trump's 2016 campaign had actively sought help from Russia forced Democrats to act.
"We must say enough - enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again," Mr Schiff argued on the Senate floor this week.
"He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again," he said.
DRIVEN BY HATE
Mr Trump's defenders were not seen as having undermined the facts compiled by Mr Schiff's probe, and several Republican senators acknowledged he did wrong.
But his lawyers and Senate defenders argued, essentially, that Mr Trump's behavior was not egregious enough for impeachment and removal.
And, pointing to the December House impeachment vote, starkly along party lines, they painted it as a political effort to "destroy the President" in an election year - arguing that voters should be allowed to decide Mr Trump's fate.
"Your hatred of Donald Trump has blinded you to the obvious. This is not about protecting the country, this is about destroying the president," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said before the vote.
"The only way for this to end permanently is for the President to get re-elected."