House Republicans put divides over Trump’s culpability on clear display

As the House debate over impeachment evolved, House Republicans ranged from arguments about national unity to defenses of the president, echoing bigger GOP split.

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As the debate unfolds on the US House floor ahead of the vote to impeach President Trump for inciting last week's riots that engulfed the Capitol, the growing divide within the Republican caucus over the president's actions is on clear display.

As the House debate over impeachment evolved, House Republicans ranged from arguments about national unity to defenses of the president, echoing bigger GOP split.

within the Republican caucus over the president's actions was on clear display.Many Republicans mounted little defense of the president, in stark reversal from last year’s impeachment debate. Instead, much of the Republican criticism focused on process complaints and predictions that impeaching Trump would only inflame tensions.

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Jan. 13, 202101:40And while some Trump allies did defend the president directly, it was far from the centerpiece of the GOP argument.During the first of two rounds of debate on the House’s articles of impeachment, Republicans didn’t even use the full hour allotted to them.

Rep. Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican tasked with leading that first round of debate as the top GOP lawmaker on the House Rules Committee, began the GOP portion by criticizing the riots, calling the attack “the darkest day during my time of service.”

And when he turned toward his opposition to impeachment, he articulated an argument that the country needs to unite, and that he doesn’t believe impeachment would serve that goal best.“I can think of no action the House can take that’s more likely to further divide the American people than the action we are contemplating today,” he said.

“We desperately need to seek a path forward, healing for the American people. So, it’s unfortunate the path to support healing is not the path the majority has chosen today. Instead, the House is moving forward, erratically, with a truncated process.”

Other than Cole, just half a dozen Republicans stood to speak in that first round. Some offered other suggestions for things like a commission to investigate the attack, some lamented the violence, some decried the push to impeach as politically motivated, and others raised frustration with the speed of the most recent impeachment process.

But none defended the president.The arguments prompted House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to push back by quoting Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the few Republicans supporting impeachment.“He doesn’t need any long, drawn-out consideration. ‘If these actions are not worthy of impeachment, what is an impeachable offense?’” Hoyer said.

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“There is no doubt in my mind that the president of the United States broke his oath and incited this insurrection.”The tone changed, however, in the second round of debate, which began early Wednesday afternoon. This time, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a close confidante of Trump’s, controlled the GOP’s speaking time. And defenses of the president became a bit sharper, even as most of the focus still remained on process complaints and concerns impeachment wouldn’t help the country unify.

Jan. 13, 202104:37When Jordan spoke during that second round, he pointed to the president’s accomplishments in office and accused Democrats of making a “double standard” for political purposes. But he offered no explicit defense of the president’s actions on Jan. 6, or any of the issues mentioned in the impeachment articles.

“It’s always been about getting the president, no matter what. It’s an obsession,” Jordan said.“It’s not about impeachment anymore, it’s about cancelling.”The first real defense of the president came in the second round of debate, just before 1 p.m. ET, when Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., argued that while he disagreed with much of the president’s recent conduct, that he didn’t believe he incited the riots.

“If we impeached every politician who gave a fiery speech to a crowd of partisans, this Capitol would be deserted. That’s what the president did, that’s all he did,” he said. “He specifically told the crowd to protest peacefully and patriotically and the vast majority of them did."

And shortly after, California Republican Rep. Darrel Issa offered a light defense of the president, while trying to accuse Democrats of using the attack to achieve their long-term goal.“The president has acted substantially the same for four years. He has rallied his base and he has, in fact, called for peaceful protest, as he did just a few days ago,” Issa said.

“Today, we are trying to punish the president, at least some are, for four years of what he did, not for what happened last week.”House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy typified the tightrope walk when he took to the floor early Wednesday afternoon, where he called a vote in favor of impeachment a"mistake," then went on to call for censuring him instead and said that the House should look for more facts.

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Jan. 13, 202109:47"A vote to impeach would further divide this nation. A vote to impeach will further fan the flames of partisan division. Most Americans want neither inaction or retribution," McCarthy said."The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attacks on Congress by mob rioters. he should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,"

But one Republican dismissed his party's process arguments to announce his support for impeaching the president."These articles of impeachment are flawed, but I will not use process as an excuse, there is no excuse for President Trump's actions," Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said.

"The president took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Last week, there was a domestic threat at the door of the Capitol, and he did nothing to stop it. That is why, with a heavy heart and clear resolve, I will vote yes."

Ben KamisarBen Kamisar is a political writer for NBC News. Read more: NBC News »

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