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U.S. Senator Rand Paul arrives to be sworn in for the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 26, 2021.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

Barely a week ago, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to signal a definitive break with Donald Trump by publicly blaming the former president for provoking “the mob” that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Even before Mr. Trump’s repudiation by the most powerful Republican in Congress, mainstream U.S. media outlets were reporting that the odds seemed to favour conviction in his Senate impeachment trial next month.

Mr. McConnell “has concluded that [the former president] committed impeachable offenses and believes that Democrats’ move to impeach him will make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the [GOP],” The New York Times reported on Jan. 12, citing “people familiar” with his thinking.

Mr. Trump seemed to be preparing for the worst, with his aides telling reporters he had been mulling the creation of a new political formation – named the Patriot Party – to carry the populist torch of Trumpism as Republicans moved to disassociate themselves from the ex-president.

Alas, talk of a breakup has turned out to have been sadly premature. On Tuesday, Republican Senator Rand Paul tabled a motion that said it would be unconstitutional for the Senate to try a president who is no longer in office. Just five Republican senators voted with all 50 Senate Democrats to defeat the motion – a dozen short of the 17 GOP votes that would be needed to convict Mr. Trump in his impeachment trial. Mr. McConnell sided with Mr. Paul.

The vote followed Monday’s move by Democrats in the House of Representatives to forward the article of impeachment against Mr. Trump that had passed by a vote of 232 to 197, with the support of 10 Republicans, to the Senate. Mr. Paul seized on the narrow grounds of the House’s impeachment resolution, which simply says that Mr. Trump “willfully made statements that, in context, encouraged – and foreseeably resulted in – lawless action, such as: ‘If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country any more.’”

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s lawyers are likely to argue that the comments he made to supporters who attended a “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington on Jan. 6 cannot be blamed for the deadly violence that ensued at the Capitol later that day. Federal prosecutors have noted that many of the people so far charged for taking part in the attack had signalled their intentions beforehand on social media.

“Are we going to impeach every politician who has used the word ‘fight’ figuratively in a speech?” Mr. Paul asked.

“I think it’s pretty obvious from the vote [on Tuesday] that it is extraordinarily unlikely that [Mr. Trump] will be convicted,” conceded Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins, who was one of the five Republicans to reject Mr. Paul’s motion. “Just do the math.”

Indeed, in recent days, state Republican leaders around the country have circled the wagons around Mr. Trump. On Saturday, Arizona’s Republican Party censured Cindy McCain, the wife of the late John McCain, and former GOP senator Jeff Flake, both of whom endorsed Democrat Joe Biden during the presidential election campaign, and even censured GOP Governor Doug Ducey for refusing to support Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn the state’s election results. Mr. Biden won Arizona by a narrow 11,000 votes, marking the first time a Democrat had carried the state since 1996.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that Mr. Trump’s former White House aide, Brian Jack, had been calling Republican senators to “reassure” them that he has no intention of creating a new political party, while adding that any GOP senator who voted to convict the former president would do so “knowing that Mr. Trump may come after them in upcoming primaries.”

On Wednesday, Axios reported that Trump acolyte Corey Lewandowski recently set up a political action committee seeking donations to launch a 2022 primary challenge against Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, who broke with her party this month to impeach the former president. “Never Trump” Republicans called her vote courageous, though it was hardly surprising given the animosity between her father, former vice-president Dick Cheney, and Mr. Trump; in 2018, he had called the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, largely orchestrated by Mr. Cheney, “the single worst decision ever made.”

Most Republican leaders have seemingly concluded that convicting Mr. Trump in the Senate would do more harm to their personal political fortunes than sparing him that ignominy. But they run the risk that Mr. Trump and the destructive forces he unleashes continue to undermine any remaining principles their party clings to. They would be wiser to put a stake through the heart of Trumpism while they have the chance. Sadly, too few of them seem prepared to do so. They may live to regret it.

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