The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Senate Republicans were quite concerned about Trump and Ukraine

President Trump embraces Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) during a campaign rally in January at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

As we head into the last day of House Democrats’ opening arguments in President Trump’s impeachment trial, we are getting closer to the point at which GOP senators will have to decide whether they want additional evidence and witnesses. Democrats need four of them to cross over. But only a handful have indicated even an openness to it.

And among those staying conspicuously quiet? Some who expressed a significant amount of concern when the Ukraine scandal broke.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has repeatedly called the House’s impeachment process a “clown show,” and his spokesman was quoted by the Omaha World-Herald on Thursday ripping into this week’s presentation. “Ben isn’t thinking about politics during Adam B. Schiff’s clown show — he’s doing his job by listening and taking notes,” the spokesman said, “even when Schiff repeats himself over and over and over again.”

Where Senate Republicans stand on Trump's impeachment

As the World-Herald notes, though, Sasse initially said in September that there was “terrible stuff” in the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. After the release of the initial whistleblower complaint, he warned Democrats against a rush to impeachment, but he also urged his own party not to reflexively stand by Trump.

“Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say there’s no ‘there’ there when there’s obviously a lot that’s very troubling there,” Sasse said.

Those comments aren’t inherently at odds — perhaps Sasse would say he hasn’t seen enough evidence to move from “terrible stuff” and “very troubling” to “impeachable” — but his initial comments suggested someone who saw the need to get to the bottom of the situation. He’ll soon be tasked with voting on new evidence and witnesses.

When the rough transcript was released, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) offered a similarly nuanced-but-concerned take. He said it didn’t include a quid pro quo and didn’t rise to the level of impeachment, but he also said that “the conversation reported in the memorandum relating to alleged Ukrainian corruption and Vice President [Joe] Biden’s son was inappropriate.”

Since that time, we’ve seen several witnesses and text messages indicate that there was indeed a quid pro quo, whether it was explicitly authorized by Trump. And having testimony from someone such as former national security adviser John Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — who publicly admitted there was a quid pro quo involving military aid, before recanting — would seem like a good way to establish whether Trump’s actions went beyond “inappropriate.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also at one point indicated he was concerned that there might have been the kind of quid pro quo the evidence now indicates existed.

Johnson told the Wall Street Journal that when European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland told him the withheld military aid to Ukraine was tied to one of Trump’s and his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani’s desired investigations, he “winced.”

“At that suggestion, I winced,” Johnson said. “My reaction was: ‘Oh, God. I don’t want to see those two things combined.’”

Those two things have been combined by Sondland’s sworn testimony, which stated that there was no other conclusion to draw, and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., testified that he also understood the two to be tied together. There are also even more witnesses who have described a quid pro quo involving a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky.

Johnson isn’t the only one to suggest this would indeed be wrong if it was a domestic political operation, rather than a national security one. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) also said as much in a “Face the Nation” interview in November.

“Here are the two possible scenarios,” Kennedy said. “No. 1: The president asked for an investigation of a political rival. No. 2: The president asked for an investigation of possible corruption by someone who happens to be a political rival.”

Kennedy added: “The latter would be in the national interest. The former would be in the president’s parochial interest and would be over the line.” Asked if the latter would be impeachable, Kennedy said, “Yeah, probably.”

There is myriad evidence that this was indeed about domestic politics rather than a true conviction about rooting out corruption in Ukraine. Giuliani said explicitly that this was about his client’s fortunes in a May interview with the New York Times. He said that “it isn’t about foreign policy” and that the “information will be very, very helpful to my client,” adding as an addendum that it might also “turn out to be helpful to my government.” Trump has also shown little interest in other forms of alleged corruption in Ukraine and other countries, and the only two investigations he’s requested of Ukraine carry obvious political benefits for him.

A few other Senate Republicans expressed a great deal of concern about the Ukraine scandal early on. One was Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), who called it “troubling in the extreme” and even suggested Trump might have broken the law. “We certainly can’t have presidents asking foreign countries to provide something of political value,” he said. “That is, after all, against the law.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) also seemed to indicate that she believed this was about domestic politics: “You don’t hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative. Period.”

But both of them have indicated a willingness to entertain new evidence and witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial, suggesting they are at least open to the idea that this could be more damning for Trump. The others don’t appear to be quite so curious about what went down anymore.