When impeachment moves to the Senate, as it eventually will, Republican senators—especially those running for reelection in purple states in 2020, but to some extent all of them—are going to be in a miserable bind. On the one hand, they are well aware that the vast majority of Republican voters want them to acquit Donald Trump. Anything less than that will bring on the wrath of the president, attacks by conservative media, and primary challengers. On the other hand, they know, or should know, that Trump is guilty as charged and that they will forever tarnish their reputations if they give him as pass. As former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake wrote in a Washington Post op-ed addressed to his former GOP colleagues:
I don’t envy you.
It might not be fair, but none of the successes, achievements and triumphs you’ve had in public office — whatever bills you’ve passed, hearings you’ve chaired, constituents you have had the privilege of helping — will matter more than your actions in the coming months.
So those Senators unwilling to give up their seats (that is, probably all of them) are no doubt searching their souls and huddling with their aides and speechwriters to come up with a position short of voting for conviction that won’t make them look craven and ridiculous in the eyes of history—–and of swing voters who, though small in number, could decide their elections.
I don’t think there is such a position, but there are certainly more and less honorable ones. The least honorable, Flake rightly argues, is the one most House Republicans, parroting Trump himself, have taken: that the president did nothing wrong. This is, of course, insane. Abusing presidential power to force an allied foreign government to dig up phony dirt on your likely political opponent, in a way that puts that foreign government at military risk, is horrifyingly wrong and clearly unconstitutional—a far worse sin than, say, lying under oath about a getting blowjob from an intern. In 1998, virtually no Democrat argued that what Bill Clinton did was OK. For Republicans to say that what Donald Trump did was just fine is appalling. And yet, they are under immense pressure to say precisely that.
Flake argues that Republican senators should vote to convict, but that that they could honorably come to the conclusion that while what Trump did was wrong, it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But that’s not really defensible either. As many observers, including Josh Marshall, have noted, Trump’s actions are almost textbook examples of what the Framers had in mind when they added impeachment language into the Constitution. If those actions do not rise to the level of impeachable, it is hard to imagine what would.
There is a more credible fallback position for Republican senators looking for an argument not to convict. They could say: Yes, the president did what he is accused of, and yes, those actions are both morally wrong and arguably impeachable, but for the good of the country it would be better to wait eight months and let the voters decide Trump’s fate.
Even that argument is deeply flawed, for the simple reason that Trump was impeached for illegally and unconstitutionally using the power of his office to try to manipulate the 2020 elections. A vote to acquit him is a green light for him to do more of the same.
Nevertheless, adopting such an argument would put senators in the position of not denying the obvious facts and excusing, at least verbally, unforgivable behavior. It would also be healthy for the basic functioning of democracy to have at least some Republican officeholders on record validating the reality of what the press and the House impeachment inquiry have documented.
In any other era, this would also be the stance that the most endangered Republican senators in 2020 such as Cory Gardner, Thom Tillis, Martha McSally, and Susan Collins—would likely take to eke out a win. It would allow them to deliver to Republican voters the acquittal they want while providing independent voters, whose support they’ll also need, with an acknowledgement of their concerns about Trump and an expression of faith in their ability to make the right call in November.
Yet these senators also know that Trump would not tolerate such nuanced deviation. He will pocket their votes to acquit him, then attack them on Twitter for having the audacity to say negative things about him. The more they stand by their views, the more he will demean them publicly, inviting further condemnation from Fox News and other organs of party control, until the lawmakers will ultimately be forced to repent and admit that the president’s conduct was “perfect.” This is how politics works now on the right, and these senators know it.
So the chances of any of them adopting the position I’ve described is vanishingly small. That’s a sad commentary on our times. At the same time, the fact that Trump is making it impossible for these senators to occupy the most politically advantageous position for themselves also means they are more likely to lose to Democratic challengers next November. So, maybe it’s not so sad after all.
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