The Kentucky Republican's floor speech came minutes after the Senate voted mostly along party lines to acquit Trump of the charge after a fast-paced impeachment trial that lasted under a week. Like many GOP senators, McConnell hinged his reasoning for acquittal on the question of constitutionality – that the trial is "moot" because Trump is no longer president. Democrats, meanwhile, dispute this and argue McConnell is the reason the trial couldn't start sooner.
But unlike most of his colleagues – with the exception of the seven Republicans who voted to convict – McConnell placed the blame for the riots squarely on the former president. And he acknowledged that Trump, as a private citizen, could still face criminal or civil litigation over the matter.
McConnell reiterated many of the points made over the past week by Democratic House impeachment managers: that Trump was responsible, his supporters believed they were acting at his behest and that the resulting chaos at the Capitol was a "foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole."
"There is no question – none – that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day, no question about it. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president," McConnell said.
The GOP leader, who has previously been critical of Trump after the riots, condemned the former president for not immediately calling them off and continuing to amplify false claims about the 2020 election. McConnell also criticized Trump's defense team for using the 74 million Americans who voted for the former president "as a kind of human shield against criticism."
Trump, for his part, released a statement following his acquittal, calling it "yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country" and accused Democrats of wanting political retribution. He expected no remorse in the statement for the riot or for those injured or killed in the course of it.
"It is a sad commentary on our times that one political party in America is given a free pass to denigrate the rule of law, defame law enforcement, cheer mobs, excuse rioters, and transform justice into a tool of political vengeance, and persecute, blacklist, cancel and suppress all people and viewpoints with whom or which they disagree," Trump said Saturday.
During his floor remarks, McConnell explained that he found Trump not guilty because the Senate doesn't have jurisdiction over the matter – a point that Democrats fiercely pushed back on both during and after the trial. He argued that because the primary purpose of impeachment trials are removal from office, it no longer applies to Trump.
"By the strict criminal standard, the president's speech probably was not incitement. However, in the context of impeachment, the Senate might have decided this was acceptable shorthand for the reckless actions that preceded the riot," McConnell said. "But in this case, the question is moot because former President Trump is not constitutionally eligible for conviction."
The question over constitutionality became a major flashpoint over the past few weeks since Trump was impeached while he still served as president but the trial didn't start until after he left the White House. But the Senate, with some GOP support, voted to proceed with the trial.
After the House impeached Trump last month, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York requested that the Senate reconvene earlier for an emergency session to begin the trial. But McConnell declined to bring back the Senate before their scheduled return on Jan. 19, the day before President Joe Biden was sworn into office.
McConnell noted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California delayed the transmission of the article to the Senate, which formally triggers a trial. But the Senate was unable to receive the impeachment resolution until it was back into session – and that didn't happen until 24 hours before Biden's inauguration.
"It is so pathetic that Sen. McConnell kept the Senate shut down so that the Senate could not receive the article of impeachment and has used that as his excuse for not voting to convict Donald Trump," Pelosi said at a press conference following the vote, ripping McConnell's speech as "disingenuous."