Senate Republicans Think Trump Guilty, Shouldn’t Be Removed

A binary choice will produce a worse outcome than necessary.

This work is in the Public Domain, CC0

As expected, Senate Republicans voted against calling witnesses, signaling what we knew going in: that they were not going to vote to convict and therefore remove President Trump from office.

The Washington Post editorial board is disappointed in “The cringing abdication of Senate Republicans.”

REPUBLICAN SENATORS who voted Friday to suppress known but unexamined evidence of President Trump’s wrongdoing at his Senate trial must have calculated that the wrath of a vindictive president is more dangerous than the sensible judgment of the American people, who, polls showed, overwhelmingly favored the summoning of witnesses. That’s almost the only way to understand how the Republicans could have chosen to deny themselves and the public the firsthand account of former national security adviser John Bolton, and perhaps others, on how Mr. Trump sought to extort political favors from Ukraine.

No, it’s not.

Buzzfeed‘s headline is much closer to right: “Republicans Now Say Trump Did What He Was Accused Of — They Just Don’t Care.”

Exhibit A in their case is Lamar Alexander.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee posted a 15-tweet thread Thursday night calling the president’s handling of aid to Ukraine “inappropriate,” acknowledging that Democrats had proven Trump did exactly what he was accused of — but, he said, it’s not impeachable.

“There is no need for more evidence to prove that the president asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter; he said this on television on October 3, 2019, and during his July 25, 2019, telephone call with the president of Ukraine,” the senator tweeted. “There is no need for more evidence to conclude that the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this with what they call a ‘mountain of overwhelming evidence.'”

But, Alexander argued, even if the president did it, the decision of what to do about it should be left to voters in the 2020 election. “The Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate,” he wrote.

While I share my co-blogger Steven Taylor’s disappointment in Alexander’s fecklessness in claiming Trump’s actions were merely “inappropriate” and not worthy of removal from office, I actually agree with the Senator that we already have more than enough evidence to convict and therefore don’t really need witnesses.

Alexander was not alone. Back to Buzzfeed:

“Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said in a statement Friday.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio echoed that line, saying in a statement of his own, “I believe that some of the president’s actions in this case — asking a foreign country to investigate a potential political opponent and the delay of aid to Ukraine — were wrong and inappropriate.”

But, Portman went on to say, “I do not believe the president’s actions rise to the level of removing a duly-elected president from office and taking him off the ballot in the middle of an election.”

Others went even further, saying that Trump did nothing wrong.

Sens. Mike Braun and Tim Scott, two Republicans who have spoken to reporters in the Capitol often throughout the trial, have taken up the “mixed motives” line. They argue that the president’s dealings were legitimate because Trump honestly believed he was rooting out corruption, even if his actions had the effect of damaging a possible presidential rival.

This, coming from a political party that impeached and tried to remove Bill Clinton for far less, spent years investigating a non-scandal in the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, and wanted to put Hillary Clinton in jail for an imperious disregard for cyber hygiene is a bit rich. Indeed, it’s a national embarrassment.

Still, impeachment is inherently a political process and, sadly, Republicans nationally still enthusiastically support their President (89% in the most recent CBS poll). While one might have hoped for less transparent stonewalling from the Senate, the ultimate outcome was never in doubt. A majority-Republican Senate was never going to vote to oust a President popular with is partisans. Indeed, Chris Hayes reminds us, “no US Senator has ever voted to remove a president of their own party.”

Granted, we have a very small sample size. There’s near-universal consensus that Andrew Johnson’s impeachment was unjustified, based on political disagreements rather than actual misfeasance. And, even at the time, Bill Clinton’s impeachment was divisive even among Republicans who hated him. Further, Richard Nixon would have almost certainly been impeached and removed on a bipartisan basis had he not preempted the process with his resignation.

Then again, we’re much more partisan than we were in 1974. While the scandal at the heart of Trump’s impeachment hadn’t broken, the fundamentals haven’t changed since Phil Bump‘s August 2018 column “The most important difference in polling about Trump and Nixon.”

Nixon’s poll numbers are interesting. He cruised to reelection in 1972, and, at first, many Americans took the Watergate revelations in stride. His approval sank in 1973, hitting a floor in the mid-20s in 1974. Eventually, senior congressional Republicans traveled to the White House to tell Nixon that support on Capitol Hill had softened and that he would lose an impeachment vote. Nixon announced his resignation the next day.

And that is the main difference. Yes, Trump is as disliked as Nixon. But the gap in views of Trump by party is far, far broader than it was for Nixon — even at the end of his tenure.

The gap in opinions of the president by party was under 40 points for most of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Under Nixon, it never topped 50 points. Under Ronald Reagan, it peaked at 70. Under George W. Bush, it at one point topped 80.

Under Trump, it has never been less than 70.

In other words, the gulf between how Republicans feel about Trump and how Democrats feel about Trump has always been at least 20 points wider than it was during Nixon’s administration. That’s one key reason Trump’s approval ratings have been so steady — and are still so much higher than Nixon’s were at the lowest point of his presidency.

There are a variety of reasons for this, most of which Steven Taylor and I have blogged about at length. But the parties are much more sorted than they were even 20, much less 45, years ago. And the re-emergence of partisan media has belied the old adage, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Regardless, that’s where we are. Unless Republicans nationally turn against Trump, it’s unreasonable to expect Congressional Republicans to do so—much less vote to oust him from office.

While putting country above party, and certainly one’s own re-election, would be commendable, it’s easy for Senate Republicans to tell themselves the Ukraine gambit is too small a hill to die on. Indeed, the collusion with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election was rather obviously a bigger deal but Democrats decided not to pursue impeachment in that case. Ditto Trump’s continuing acts of personal corruption and violations of the Emoluments Clauses.

For that matter, while public support for Trump’s impeachment closely tracks, as it did for Bill Clinton, his job approval numbers, the correlation isn’t exact: “Just 4% of Americans who approve of the job Trump is doing as president say he should be convicted, while a modestly higher 15% of those who disapprove of Trump say he should be acquitted.” The bar for removal from office is indeed higher than the bar for disapproval.

Given all that, my preference would be for an outcome less binary than removal from office versus acquittal.

The AP roundup bears the headline “GOP senators seek to acquit Trump without condoning conduct.” But they’re basically describing more kindly what Buzzfeed and I have characterized as agreeing Trump is guilty and not caring. But the headline sparked a realization: there should be a choice between condoning Trump’s misdeeds and removing him from office.

Part of the problem is that, because we insist on characterizing the Senate process as a “trial,” we confuse a political proceeding for a criminal one. As I argued yesterday in response to a comment from @Kingdaddy,

The House has, for all intent and purposes, already conducted a trial.* Its Constitutional role is to adjudicate guilt and it has, granted along party lines, pronounced the President guilty.

The Senate’s role is more analogous to the sentencing phase than a trial. The question is whether to remove the President for the crimes, not whether he did it.

In 1999, there was zero question that Clinton did what he was accused of. But there was a sense that it didn’t merit removal and the Senate voted not to remove him—with even a couple of Republicans joining in.

There’s no question that Trump is guilty. He’s all but admitted to it. But there’s also no real question that Senate Republicans will decline to remove him.

My preference, then, would be for Senate Republicans to have a formal way of going on the record that Trump’s actions were an abuse of power but not sufficiently egregious to warrant removal from office. What that mechanism would look like—A vote on the facts separate from a vote to remove? A vote to acquit followed by a vote to censure?—I don’t know. But it would be preferable to a straight-up message that Trump’s actions were acceptable.

My guess, sadly, is that few of Senate Republicans would be willing even to go that far. But, if nothing else, we’d have a cleaner record of where they stood.

____________________

*Let me caveat, as I did elsewhere in that post, that the White House’s stonewalling of the process—which correctly led to the second impeachment count—made it less than a full trial. The Senate could indeed remedy that with orders from the Chief Justice. But, again, the facts are not in dispute.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2020, Congress, Donald Trump, Impeachment, U.S. Constitution, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    Or, Republicans don’t care about crimes if it gives them election advantages. ‘Fuck the law as long as we get what we want’.

    “Whatever you think of his behavior, with the terrific economy, with conservative judges, with fewer regulations, you add in there an inappropriate call with the president of Ukraine, and you decide if your prefer him or Elizabeth Warren.”

    -Lamar Alexander

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  2. charon says:

    A vote to acquit followed by a vote to censure?—I don’t know. But it would be preferable to a straight-up message that Trump’s actions were acceptable.

    That would not mollify people, it would just anger them. It would be seen as insulting, patronizing, the cherry atop the shit sundae.

    I mean , seriously? It would be an insult because it would have no deterrent effect, it would just greenlight more of the same.

    What was demonstrated is there are no checks on presidential behavior if Senate and President are Republicans, which looks to me much like straightforward outright Fascism. No way to sugarcoat that.

    And, BTW, is not Lamar Alexander’s statement functionally the same as censure? We know you did it, we think it’s bad, we aren’t going to do a phuking thing about it.

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  3. charon says:

    BTW, slightly OT: Several magazines have commented lately on the Prez’ deteriorating neurological situation, the latest is Esquire. It gets mentioned occasionally on MSNBC also, Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid etc. It will get more and more mentions as the disease progresses, but never on Fox or by the NY Post.

    With the impeachment acquittal as precedent, I predict stonewalling on senile dementia as well. The GOP has lashed itself to the mast of Trump’s ship and will sail it to wherever.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @charon:

    And, BTW, is not Lamar Alexander’s statement functionally the same as censure?

    Yes, but it’s one guy’s informal opinion, issued by Tweet. A formal vote by the Senate as a body would have more gravity.

    We know you did it, we think it’s bad, we aren’t going to do a phuking thing about it.

    But that was the position of most Senate Democrats in the Clinton impeachment. It’s a perfectly reasonable position to take, actually, when the only “phuking thing” on offer is removal from office.

    Again: I think Trump’s conduct merits removal. But I know plenty of people, including lifelong Democrats, who think it’s not worth “undoing an election” over. (I hate that formulation, since Trump would be replaced by Mike Pence, who was elected, not Hillary Clinton. But it’s not just a Republican talking point.)

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  5. charon says:

    Yes, but it’s one guy’s informal opinion, issued by Tweet. A formal vote by the Senate as a body would have more gravity.

    I hate to be tedious about something this trivial, but doesn’t zero remain zero if multiplied by 53? Perhaps a few would disagree with details of Alexander’s take, but a censure would likely not reflect everyone’s real position either.

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  6. grumpy realist says:

    So we’ve seen a pitiful show of timid mice acquiescing to a bully because they’re scared of his roaring at them on Twitter? Squeak all you want, Lisa Murkowski–it’s very easy to see how much courage you have to stand up for the Constitution: NONE.

    I suspect later on we’ll look back and pinpoint this as the day that the Great American Democracy experiment died. Oh, it will linger on for a few years as a fragile husk of itself, but this is the day where one of the Founding Fathers’ pieces of genius, the idea of checks and balances, the idea of constitutional thought itself just…..vanished. We’ve got a mad Pope at the helm, and none of the jurists nor the cardinals are going to do anything against him.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Regardless, that’s where we are. Unless Republicans nationally turn against Trump, it’s unreasonable to expect Congressional Republicans to do so—much less vote to oust him from office.

    So, as a former Army officer, you endorse cowardice and violation of one’s oath of impartiality. It is now ‘reasonable’ to expect politicians to stand for nothing but their own hold on power. Ho hum. Which means – as I said many months back to much huffing and angry denunciation here – that politics now is reduced to nothing but brute force.

    I need to start keeping a list of things I write at time X, am denounced for at X+1 which become commonly-accepted at time Y. Every ounce of contempt I’ve heaped on Trump and Republicans has first been denounced by the bien pensants, only to be seamlessly incorporated in the common wisdom months or years later.

    The US Senate is just the Chiefs and the Niners. And that is fine, because sports is a metaphor that works for men. Swell. If I loan you a shovel, James, do you think you could lower the bar still further?

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  8. Teve says:

    that politics now is reduced to nothing but brute force.

    The Merrick Garland event was nothing but brute force.

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  9. @James:

    My guess, sadly, is that few of Senate Republicans would be willing even to go that far.

    I agree. I think that right now some of them can pretend like a lesser punishment would be appropriate, but the reality is partisanship almost certainly dictates voting in favor of the president by co-partisans.

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  10. @grumpy realist:

    So we’ve seen a pitiful show of timid mice acquiescing to a bully because they’re scared of his roaring at them on Twitter?

    No, we are seeing a lot of vote-seeking politicians who are afraid of their constituencies back home and/or diminishing their political power.

    And, also, via motivated thinking or not, people who really don’t think he should be removed.

    None of that absolves them from moral assessments, but we kid ourselves if we assume that everyone really, secretly, agrees with us.

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  11. @Michael Reynolds:

    It is now ‘reasonable’ to expect politicians to stand for nothing but their own hold on power.

    As an empirical matter, this is how politicians behave. And yes, I expect it.

    Liking it, or agreeing with their decisions from a normative POV, is another matter.

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  12. @Michael Reynolds:

    that politics now is reduced to nothing but brute force.

    Well, to a degree, that is true and always has been and always will be.

    This is not a new observation.

    This issue is whether the brute force is applied within a structure of rules or isn’t. (And therefore, whether it is conducted via vote or with swords).

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  13. dmichael says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t know why you obsess about Bill Clinton and his sexual escapades but could you get the facts right? No, it wasn’t not to do anything and “…that was the position of most Senate Democrats in the Clinton impeachment.” They offered censure of the president (you know, the process you wrote about in this post). In the WaPo from that time: “…Republican leaders immediately blocked a Democratic censure alternative from being introduced when the full House [would take] up the articles ….”

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  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    As an empirical matter, this is how politicians behave.

    As an empirical matter spiders bite, but we are not spiders. Cynicism is surrender.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @Teve: In a binary system—let alone one where the stakes of Supreme Court appointments are considered existential on both sides—that sort of appeal is to be expected and, indeed, powerful. Lots of my fellow Republicans agreed with me about how awful Trump was but nonetheless voted for him and see two Supreme Court seats that were approved by the Federalist Society vice by the Clinton machine—with potentially more to come—worth the price of their souls.

    @grumpy realist:

    So we’ve seen a pitiful show of timid mice acquiescing to a bully because they’re scared of his roaring at them on Twitter?

    He’s got like 90% approval with the Republican nominating electorate. It’s a lot to expect that they’re going to vote to remove him from office, at the cost of ouster from office themselves and likely pariah status at home, especially without assurance that enough of their fellows would do the same and get the job done.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    So, as a former Army officer, you endorse cowardice and violation of one’s oath of impartiality.

    I expect soldiers to follow orders, even ones they disagree with, unless they’re blatantly illegal or immoral. I expect politicians to vote in a way that serves their own electoral interests, which theoretically reasonably align with the wishes of their constituents, under all but extraordinary circumstances.

    Do I consider these circumstances extraordinary? Enough so that I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will surely vote for the Democratic nominee in 2020 (presuming Trump is on the ballot). I think Trump is some combination of venal and senile—and I think a lot of Senate Republicans think so, too. But I’m not shocked that they’re voting the way they are, given that the Republican base is still in Trump’s camp.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @dmichael: I think a President having sex with a subordinate, much less a young intern, is problematic. But he was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, both of which are crimes (and for which he was later disbarred).

    I’d actually forgotten that Democrats tried to trade impeachment for censure. Regardless, once he was impeached, Democratic Senators had a binary choice: acquit or remove.

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  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    unless they’re blatantly illegal or immoral

    So we expect soldiers to exercise legal and moral judgment but not politicians.

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  18. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    As an empirical matter spiders bite, but we are not spiders. Cynicism is surrender.

    Is it cynicism to acknowledge that the outcome we all expected as most likely from the beginning is, in fact, the outcome that we are getting?

    I’m not even sure it’s defeatism. It is acknowledging defeat, sure, but it’s not saying that it wasn’t worth trying. Everyone knew going in that getting past the party loyalty was going to be an uphill climb.

    We’re not spiders, but we’re pretty close. Particularly when we feel attacked.

    (As an aside, I read Gone and enjoyed it, except for all the hyper-competent teenagers — there were very few that acted like people (Quinn, Quill?). I think you have a somewhat higher expectation of people than maybe you should.)

  19. @Michael Reynolds:

    As an empirical matter spiders bite, but we are not spiders. Cynicism is surrender.

    Expecting spiders not to bite can kill you. That isn’t cynicism; it is reality.

    Human beings can certainly be made to adapt in ways spiders can’t, but if plainly stating reality is cynicism, then there can be no science.

    You frequently decry religion and criticize those who are anti-science. But if you are simply going to say that people ought to behave differently because that is what you want, you are treading the same pathways you criticize.

    I will repeat: identifying and understanding are the first steps to solutions. Denial is not helpful.

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  20. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Interesting perspective – Not calling witnesses was a mistake on the part of Senate Republicans. It wouldn’t have changed anybodys mind, but it would have given them the veneer of being interested in getting to the truth.

    Instead, they now have a situation where just about everybody who isn’t a diehard Trumper believes that they were complicit in a cover-up.

    And it basically ensures that what would have essentially all come out over the space of days, months before an election, will now drip drip drip out in a continuous cycle right on through to election day.

    They learned nothing from Herman Cain …

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  21. Jax says:

    Romney’s been disinvited from CPAC because of his vote for witnesses. The pack is turning on him.

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  22. @Jax: Which reinforces a point I made on my post this morning: most GOP Senators aren’t willing to pay the price of supporting witnesses when they know full well that removal was off the table.

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  23. An Interested Party says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Well certainly we hope that they will pay for that mistake but I’m not so sure that’s going to happen at this point…

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I know plenty of people, including lifelong Democrats, who think it’s not worth “undoing an election” over.

    Such Democrats may be thinking more strategically than many on this thread. It’s possible that they think (realize?) that as marginal as the chances of removing Trump in the next election may be that an incumbent Pence would represent a much more formidable challenge. After all, he’s not Trump, and “we haven’t seen what he can really do yet; at worst, he’ll continue the legacy and Keep America Great.”

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “So we expect soldiers to exercise legal and moral judgment but not politicians.”

    Can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve never expected politicians to exercise either legal or moral judgement except to the extent that it served their personal or pecuniary interests to do so. Expecting them to be venal and self dealing brings much less disillusionment when they are.

    But I do agree with HL92’s observation that it would have been wiser to go with holding onto a veneer of truth seeking for appearance’s sake. What the GOP Senate did strikes me as thoughtless because Lamar, among others, have listened to witnesses, said exactly what he said and have given the illusion that he was principled rather than a partisan hack. Oh well…

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jax: @Steven L. Taylor: Also consider when Romney stands for election next. Anyone in Utah–which didn’t support Trump to begin with IIRC–going to care then (is Mitt even going to be able to stand for reelection at that age)? It was a free shot at Trump.

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  27. @Just nutha ignint cracker: Utah is a really interesting case. It is deeply Republican, but Trump is not popular the way he is, say, here in Alabama.

    Trump only won 45.54% in Utah and 2016 and Evan McMullin won 21.54%.

    And, as you note, Mitt doesn’t stand for reelection until 2024.

  28. dazedandconfused says:

    I’ll suggest that stipulating to the guilt and then saying it doesn’t merit removal from office may be the only way for the Rs to shut down House investigations on the matter. The only fly in the ointment is that all but compels them to sign on to a bill to censure Trump.

    As far as fundamentally changing the republic? Unlikely. There is nothing in the behavior of the modern Republican Party which indicates they will abide to any standard of ethical behavior. Hypocrisy is, if anything, rewarded in their primaries…as long as it is a hypocrisy that lends itself to power and control. If a Democrat as POTUS misbehaves the status quo ante will be restored instantly.
    Case in point: McConnell openly stating it would be in the matter of Supreme Court nominations, should one happen this year.

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  29. dazedandconfused says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Mitt is safe. He’s their favorite son, bishop in the LDS church and the bringer of bacon in the form or Winter Olympics, among other things. Moreover, Utah does not suffer from anything like the fear of dark skin which is the heritage of the deep south and midwest, so Trump’s race-baiting doesn’t ring their bell in anything like the same way, indeed if at all, and race baiting is key to Trump’s appeal.

    They aren’t liberal only because the liberals say bad things about religion from time to time, and liberal is read as ‘libertine’.

  30. SC_Birdflyte says:

    There is some consolation in my belief that, whether or not Trump wins re-election in November, he will certainly commit some further act(s) that will be so flagrant that a lot of Republicans running for re-election will have to explain why they voted to give him a “get out of jail free” card.

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