On the day it became clear a majority of the Senate would allow the trial of the president to close without hearing from a single witness, Republicans who found themselves protecting Donald Trump started making a surprising admission.
Trump, of all people, might have done something wrong.
The revelations started with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, whose pending retirement gave him more independence than many of his colleagues to break with the president. But on Thursday night, he revealed that he would join most other Republicans in a vote to block the Senate from hearing witnesses, most notably former National Security Adviser John Bolton.
He offered a perhaps surprising reason for this decision, though: He doesn’t need Bolton’s testimony to know Trump’s guilty.
“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,” Alexander said in a statement. “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.’”
He dismissed the second charge against the president, obstruction of Congress, as “frivolous.” But he thinks the Ukraine scheme was wrongful.
“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation,” he continued. “When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law. But 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.”
To be sure, Alexander is too generous to Trump here. He doesn’t explore the reasons that truly make Trump’s actions so egregious, such as the fact that they were based on nonsense conspiracy theories and were clearly intended to influence the 2020 election.
But he was, at least, finally admitting that what Trump did wasn’t right. He just doesn’t want to say the Senate should remove the president over this kind of conduct.
With this admission, others chimed in.
“Long story short, [Alexander] most likely expressed the sentiments of the country as a whole as well as any single Senator possibly could. Those who hate Trump and wish to take the voters[‘] choice away in an unfounded manner, Sen. Alexander rightly rejected their arguments,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of the president, in a tweet.
Graham also sent the mildest possible message to Trump, who has claimed his phone call pushing for the Ukrainian investigations that sparked the impeachment proceedings was “perfect.”
“To those who believe that all was ‘perfect,’ Senator Alexander made reasoned observations and conclusions based on the evidence before him. He called it as he saw it to be,” Graham wrote. “Well done Lamar!”
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska bolstered these sentiments further.
“Let me be clear; Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us,” Sasse told reporters, as CNN’s Manu Raju reported.
Sasse was once a vocal critic of Trump from within his own party. But as his own re-election grew closer, he began minimizing his dissent, and he earned the president’s endorsement in his primary. So it wasn’t surprising that, when Raju followed up to ask Sasse whether Trump behaved inappropriately, the senator refused to answer.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) may have gone even further than Alexander, saying in a Medium post of Trump’s alleged abuse of power: “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.”
He later said Democrats have not proven their case, but suggested that if they had, Trump’s conduct might warrant impeachment. But he also said that, even if the conduct does warrant impeachment, he still thinks it would be best for the country to leave Trump in office because “at least half of the country would view his removal as illegitimate.” He blamed the Democrats’ “partisan” impeachment process for this fact, while ignoring that Republicans’ steadfast refusal to seriously consider Trump did anything wrong throughout the proceedings was a necessary condition of this partisanship.
He also said: “I disagree with the House Managers’ argument that, if we find the allegations they have made are true, failing to remove the President leaves us with no remedy to constrain this or future Presidents. Congress and the courts have multiple ways by which to constrain the power of the executive.”
But like the other Republicans who hinted Trump might have done something wrong, he proposed no actual alternative to removal for holding Trump accountable.
And that’s what makes all their admissions so shameful. They’ve let Trump declare for months that he’s done nothing wrong and that the impeachment is an unfair witch hunt. They’ve even let Trump continue to engage in the very scheme he was impeached for. They know he will never admit he did anything wrong, which means without external punishment, he won’t be deterred. But they refused to stand up for the impeachment process, refused to admit that the conduct in question really was worthy of serious investigation, even if they didn’t want to remove Trump in the end. Democrats pushing impeachment were relentlessly attacked by right-wing media, and the elected Republicans officials who knew, actually, that the pro-impeachment crowd might have a point said nothing.
They let the impeachment become a purely partisan affair — with the exception of Michigan’s Rep. Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party because of Trump — and then they blamed the Democrats for not convincing them to join in. Now they say impeachment is too strong a cure for the malady at issue, but they propose no other treatment. They will, undoubtedly, allow Trump to continue thinking that he did nothing wrong and will give him no reason to change his path.
These are clear signs of cowardice and guilt. Not of Trump’s guilt, this time, but their own. They offer their excuses for refusing to challenge Trump, but these paper-thin explanations fail to grapple with the facts and show the lawmakers are lying to themselves. They’re lying to themselves, of course, because they have to. The costs of breaking with the president are far too high — even for Alexander, at the end of his career — and they don’t have the courage to do it.