Even before the House Intelligence Committee wrapped up its public impeachment hearings, the punditariat and the president’s defenders defiantly declared this whole matter “over” because polls show Americans don’t care, ratings show not enough of them watched, and though some vaping voters may abandon Trump, elected Republicans never will. This week the impeachment process moves over to the House Judiciary Committee, where we will hear from Republicans over and over that these proceedings are an embarrassing failure. When the process reaches the House floor, either late this month or in January, we can expect Republicans to vote en masse against articles of impeachment and throw triumphant press conferences celebrating the Democrats’ political suicide. Somewhere senators are practicing their gleeful but disgusted chuckles.
It seems all but certain that a Senate impeachment trial won’t remove Trump from office, since reaching the necessary supermajority of 67 votes would require the support not only of all 47 Senate Democrats and independents but also of 20 Senate Republicans. Yet surely there are at least 12 Republican senators who could find themselves unable to absolve the president of his demonstrably impeachable conduct. A bipartisan majority vote declaring his actions a betrayal of his oath of office is still critically important. A partisan acquittal would represent a grave threat to the Republic: Trump would view it not only as approval of his past abuse of power and attempted bribery but as permission for more. This outcome, senators know, would invite Trump to break our system for good.
We have watched as Republicans have repeatedly squirmed, looked the other way, and normalized Trump’s lies, disdain for process and protocol, and constant undermining of constitutional norms, congressional prerogatives, judicial independence, the credibility of the Department of Justice, and the reputation of the intelligence community. Senate Republicans hoped things would never reach this point, but with Trump it was all but guaranteed that he would get himself impeached. Now as we near the final threshold, they must ask themselves: If this doesn’t merit impeachment, what does? If an out-of-control executive faces no real check from the legislative branch and can not only declare national emergencies to redirect congressionally appropriated and approved funds for political projects but also bribe a foreign government for help in his domestic political campaign by threatening to withhold more congressionally appropriated and approved funds, then does Congress have the power of the purse or oversight or stature as a coequal branch anymore?
The universe of possible Senate Republican votes against the president is small. It may once have included Ben Sasse, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, and Mike Lee. But Portman and Sasse have indicated they no longer dwell in this universe, Toomey will likely follow the pressure of the pack, and Lee seems to have his eyes on a black robe on the Supreme Court and so is likely to remain mum. Marco Rubio has spent considerable time and energy on the issue of election security—and like all his colleagues knows Trump is attacking the integrity of the 2020 election—but has made it clear he thinks the impeachment of Trump is a joke.
Likely the only Senate Republicans who will truly wrestle with this burden are three retirees who are leaving the Senate next year, another three rebels who seemed disinclined to fear the cult, and six others who are up for re-election. Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi, and Pat Roberts are eyeing the history books and all revere the institution that was functioning as a coequal branch of government when they arrived. Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski have not been afraid to criticize Trump, and Richard Burr has run the most bipartisan committee in Congress through his own Russia investigation—and is serving his final term in the seat once held by Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate committee.
For those Senate Republicans in tough re-election battles, a vote to sanction Trump isn’t going to save them, but if they are likely to lose their race anyway they may see the most important vote of their career a bit differently. Susan Collins is in a huge fight after a career as the most bipartisan senator in a state Hillary Clinton won. Cory Gardner is also facing a well-liked former governor in a blue state Clinton won. Martha McSally lost her race in Arizona last year and is now serving by appointment in the seat of the late John McCain. She is running in a swing state and will weigh her dependence on Trump against the Constitution and democracy she fought to protect as a combat pilot in the Air Force. Joni Ernst will have to hope every last devastated farmer shows up to vote Republican after Trump’s trade war has hit Iowa and his approval there is underwater. Her own approval and fundraising have been weak. Thom Tillis is also underwater in North Carolina where Democrats are investing heavily and where he was booed at a Trump rally. Tillis could lose his race even if Trump wins the state. Finally, John Cornyn, a former judge and attorney general of Texas, will be in for a fierce fight in a state Ted Cruz predicted would be “hotly contested,” with Democrats promising to run up massive margins after their record turnout in 2018.
Yes, all of these senators are still, sadly, long shots to vote against Trump. We know how much pressure they will face to put the man above their oath. Trump expects not a single betrayal—a perfect vote like his “perfect call.”
It was striking to see several GOP senators rush out, as soon as the weeks of damaging Intelligence Committee testimony concluded, to make sure we knew that as impeachment jurors they will most definitely not have open minds. It was especially striking because, just hours after the hearings ended, a series of new developments started breaking in the press.
First, the New York Times reported that “American intelligence officials informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election.” That’s the same “fictional narrative” that Russia expert and senior foreign affairs official Fiona Hill warned members of Congress about in her testimony last week.
Next, a lawyer for Rudy Giuliani crony Lev Parnas told CNN that last year, Rep. Devin Nunes, then the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, met in Vienna with Viktor Shokin, the ousted Ukrainian prosecutor general, to mine for oppo on former vice president Joe Biden.
Then the Washington Post reported a series of internal administration emails depicting a scramble to retroactively explain Trump’s Ukraine actions. The emails show acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney asking how to provide a legal rationale for withholding security aide to Ukraine—a request that came just days “after the White House Counsel’s Office was put on notice that an anonymous CIA official had made a complaint to the agency’s general counsel” about Trump’s infamous July 25 call.
Then ABC News reported that Parnas has already provided tapes, audio, and video to the House Intelligence Committee.
And then, a few days later, it emerged that two White House budget officials resigned this year at least in part out of frustration with Trump’s delay of aid to Ukraine.
This parade of Ukraine news should have been a sobering reminder for potential Senate jurors that there is always more. There will always be more.
So we know that senators are lunching with Trump at the White House and he’s turned Camp David into Dave & Buster’s for congressional Republicans to enjoy s’mores and skeet shooting while marinating in his “hoax” rants—but several of them aren’t even trying to be subtle.
Sen. John Kennedy, for example, has gone full Nunes, racing to television cameras to spread Trump’s Ukrainian election-meddling BS. After embarrassing himself on Fox last Sunday—after the New York Times reported on senators being briefed on this exact disinformation campaign—he tried walking it back on CNN days later, only to dig back in this Sunday on Meet The Press, as if Trump had perhaps gotten mad at him in the meantime. Kennedy’s colleagues know one of his multiple degrees is from Oxford University where he earned the highest achievement academic honors, and that Kennedy knows better and is serving a Russian propaganda operation to put political power and protection of Trump before his country.
For her part, Sen. Marsha Blackburn suddenly tweeted out Friday, “Vindictive Vindman is the ‘whistleblower’s’ handler.” It’s so repulsive let’s hope she was day-drinking.
Rep. Doug Collins, itching to be tapped for an open Senate seat, insisted this weekend on Fox News Sunday that Rep. Adam Schiff must himself be called to testify, another wacky idea that sits atop the Trump wish list, somewhere above getting the Supreme Court to “take up” impeachment. Collins has served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy and Air Force, deployed to Iraq in 2008-2009, and worked as an attorney, yet on Sunday he babbled incoherently in defense of President Trump: “There was nothing about a problematic giving aid to another country in which you’re talking about corruption, which he’s required to do by law.”
It’s too early to gauge how complicated things will get in the Senate. Just how far will Majority Leader Mitch McConnell go to satisfy Trump’s demands? We know that some GOP senators are already feeling abdominal pain over the coming push by Sen. Rand Paul and the MAGA-KAGsters to turn the upper chamber into the WWE—with appearances from the whistleblower, Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and Lord knows, maybe Bruce and Nellie Ohr. And while we also know—though Trump may not—that McConnell wants to be majority leader with a Democrat as president more than he wants to be minority leader with Trump re-elected, the essential question is what will McConnell tolerate? There was a time, weeks ago, when Sen. Lindsey Graham said he would not “turn the Senate into a circus” by dragging the former vice president and his son into a Senate trial but there was also a time when Graham wept over how God couldn’t make a better person than his friend Biden. Graham has now started a probe into the Bidens.
According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump has told friends that he is eager to see Senate Republicans aggressively argue that he did nothing wrong.” While they sit silent as jurors, Trump will behave erratically and torment Democratic witnesses on Twitter. If House Democrats bring an obstruction of justice article against Trump, 14 Senate Republicans will be in the potentially awkward position of having voted in support of the same charge for President Bill Clinton: Graham, Wicker, Burr, Portman, John Thune, Jerry Moran, and Roy Blunt as House members voting to impeach Clinton; and Enzi, McConnell, Roberts, Chuck Grassley, Jim Inhofe, Richard Shelby, and Mike Crapo as senators voting to convict him.
It will be so ugly. The smell of hypocrisy will be everywhere. Tribalism has already contorted the mindset of too many Republicans, making President Trump’s removal all but impossible. But a few good men and women can choose country over cult.
Let’s hope that a handful of them can stomach it.