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Trump's Impeachment Trial Is A Test For The Future Of The Republican Party

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What's next for the Republican Party? After the Capitol siege, key Republicans seem ready to dump their ties to President Trump. But the upcoming Senate impeachment trial and divisions among House Republicans show the broader party is not ready for a divorce from Trumpism. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: In the hours and days following the insurrection, then-President Trump's biggest allies on Capitol Hill appeared to be leaving him behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: I don't buy this. Enough's enough.

MITCH MCCONNELL: They were provoked by the president.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.

GRISALES: That's South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP's top House member, Kevin McCarthy. Others followed suit, giving hope the fractured party could finally overcome its divisions over Trump. Moderate members, such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, said Republicans could rally around their core beliefs of a strong national defense and individual freedoms again.

SUSAN COLLINS: Principles of our party that transcend any particular leader.

GRISALES: Some Republicans were upbeat Trump could be banished with a conviction in the Senate impeachment trial for his role in the Capitol riot. Former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said the prospect meant the party could be relevant and win majorities again.

JEFF FLAKE: If it accelerates the move away from Trumpism, then that's good for Republicans.

GRISALES: But the rebuke did not last long. Graham has advised Trump on his legal strategy. McConnell pulled back on his public critiques, and McCarthy visited the former president at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. And a recent vote to proceed with the Senate trial only saw five Republicans break with their colleagues to say the trial is constitutional.

BRENDAN BUCK: If anything, it is a reminder that the party has very little tolerance right now for being against Trump. And by party, I mean voters.

GRISALES: That's Brendan Buck, a Republican consultant who says lawmakers are sticking with Trump to win GOP votes during their primaries, even if it costs national influence. It's also proof the Trump wing of the party has virtually swallowed up its more traditional wing time and time again. Wyoming's Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican who voted for Trump's impeachment, is facing calls from her colleagues to step down from her leadership role - this as controversial figures like Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter, are forcing GOP leaders to address their claims or risk they become the new face for the party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: I've got President Trump's back. You want to know why? He has our back.

GRISALES: Now the House Republican Conference will address what roles Cheney and Greene will play in the GOP's future. Trump is not on the ballot in 2022, but Republicans say they're focused on those who are in hopes of winning back control of the House and Senate. In the meantime, it's unclear how long Trump's hold on the party will last.

JOHN CORNYN: He's going to have to deal with voters like we all do. They're the ultimate authority in this, not Congress.

GRISALES: That's Texas Senator John Cornyn, who opposes the Senate impeachment trial. Cornyn is not alone in his thinking. North Carolina's Thom Tillis agrees and notes the current battle between the party's establishment and populist wings are old hat.

THOM TILLIS: You know, I think that discussion's been going on since 1854 when the GOP was established. You have that discussion every year. It's a perennial discussion. There's some valid arguments, and sometimes I think it's just muscle memory.

GRISALES: Republicans do not expect the president to be convicted in the Senate impeachment trial but say even as the party sticks with him now, over time, voters will have the last word.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.