Could the Senate Republicans Really Convict Donald Trump?

From the earliest days of the Mueller investigation, there’s been almost a consensus that it would not matter what kind of evidence was turned up against Donald Trump– the Republican-controlled Senate would never vote to convict him in an impeachment trial and thereby remove him from office. This has always seemed like a safe bet and the least risky prediction for any analyst worried about protecting their reputation for foresight.

I have always argued, however, that there are circumstance under which Trump could be convicted by the Senate, although they would have to be extreme. As of this moment, we are not yet there. But, based on the reporting of Robert Costa and Philip Rucker in the Washington Post, we may not be too far off.

Privately, one Republican senator characterized their situation as “a horror show.” Costa and Rucker described the Senate Republicans as “lost and adrift” and “frustrated by the absence of a credible case to defend [Trump’s] conduct and anxious about the historic reckoning that likely awaits them.”

They report that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still leading the way, most interested in protecting their majority in next year’s elections. Presently, that means sticking with the president:

“They’ve decided that they’re going to take it all grudgingly — and privately, perhaps, in disgust — but they’re not going to give up the farm,” said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the American Conservative Union. But, he added, “It’s been piling on, piling on, piling on, and I see defense fatigue on behalf of the Republicans in the Congress.”

If this is correct, support for Trump is based on a tenuous calculus that the GOP’s hold on the Senate is better served by doing what the base seems to want, which is to fight back against the Democrats’ charges even if they privately agree with them.  This isn’t about any principles other than self-preservation and power, which means that the support could evaporate overnight if the calculus changes.

In hushed conversations over the past week, GOP senators lamented that the fast-expanding probe is fraying their party, which remains completely in Trump’s grip. They voiced exasperation at the expectation that they defend the president against the troublesome picture that has been painted, with neither convincing arguments from the White House nor confidence that something worse won’t soon be discovered.

People are generally not exasperated about the expectations placed on them if they feel like they’re being asked to do something sensible or productive. They don’t feel that way if they have confidence that what they’re being told to do is actually in their own best interest. It’s true that people often have to do thing in their work that they morally question, and they do them to protect their job, but they don’t like it. If the moral conflict becomes too much to bear, people will begin looking for a new employer.

My impression is that Senate Republicans have an impossibly high tolerance for this kind of moral conflict, but they are still human beings and are ultimately driven by the same kinds of considerations that govern the behavior of ordinary citizens.

Trump and his allies have strained to focus the debate on the process, but Republican officials have struggled to answer for the substance of the startling statements made by the growing list of credible witnesses from the national security and diplomatic realms.

“There’s frustration. It feels to everyone like they’re just digging a hole and making it worse. It just never ends. . . . It’s a total [expletive] show,” said one Republican strategist who has been advising a number of top senators.

This is a pretty unstable situation, and there is still plenty of time for things to get knocked off the axis.

For one thing, the Republicans have so far been complaining that the House investigation is taking place behind closed doors, but this has been hugely beneficial to them. It has not only given them a talking point to rally around, but it has kept them from having to respond to powerful televised testimony. That will change sometime in mid-November, and when it does their concern about the “total [expletive] show” will grow in leaps and bounds.

Between now and then, however, more damaging information will be collected by House investigators. There could be more indictments coming out of the investigation of Rudy Giuliani and his Ukrainian gangster friends. The set of facts we have now is probably tame compared to what will ultimately be presented to the people and the Senate.

It’s also unlikely that Trump’s behavior will improve or grow easier to defend. It’s doubtful that his foreign policy will become more palatable to the Caucus. The resentment and unease that Republican senators presently feel will surely increase. And the calculus of self-interest could change as a result.

They not only face the prospect of acquitting the president of what they consider clear crimes, but also of having to follow that up by holding a Republican National Convention where he will be renominated as their standard bearer. It’s almost as hard for me to envision the Senate Republicans going along with that as it is for me to picture them removing Trump from office.

I don’t see how that really fits with their theory of self-preservation. Until now, Republicans who have broken with the president have tended to either announce their retirement or change their party registration to independent. But that’s part of the problem. It’s not safe to be a lone antelope on the prairie. It’s much safer to move as a herd. And if the whole herd is threatened by the impeachment process, they need to consider that many the safest course is moving collectively to convict. Surely this is better than having a convention where they’re all expected to extol the virtues of Trump and argue for another four years.

I think the truth of the matter is that the Senate Republicans are truly undecided about how to best preserve their majority. And that is why they aren’t more forceful in defending Trump.

“The picture coming out of it based on the reporting we’ve seen I would say is not a good one, but I would say also, until we have a process that allows for everybody to see this in full transparency, it’s pretty hard to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), another member of leadership, said, “To some extent, we need to be thoughtful about waiting for the House and whatever conclusions they reach. For us to express concerns about process is totally appropriate. But reaching conclusions based on anybody’s select information at this point probably isn’t a helpful place for us to be.”

I think they’re already convinced that Trump should be removed from office, but they’re not yet ready to take that step. Yet, they’re also unprepared to rule it out.

“What’s causing the most pause is, what else is out there? What is around the corner?” said a second Republican strategist in regular contact with congressional leaders. “If they say something in defense of the president or against the impeachment inquiry now, will they be pouring cement around their ankles?”

Maybe the most important factor is that they simply dislike the president and want to be free of his influence. In the end, this could be what tips the balance and leads them to surprise all the pundits.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com