“That’s where he lost me,” proclaimed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) called it “insulting and demeaning to everyone to say that we somehow live in fear and that the president has threatened all of us.’’ Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) went so far as to say that “I know of no Republican senator who has been threatened in any way by anyone in the administration.”
Trump’s actions in the 20 hours since his acquittal prove how overwrought the whole thing was.
Shortly after the vote, Trump and his team were clearly out for revenge against those he believed had wronged him. And that’s especially the case with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who on Wednesday became the first member of a president’s own party to vote to remove him from office.
The White House said in a statement after Trump’s acquittal that “only the President’s political opponents — all Democrats, and one failed Republican presidential candidate — voted for the manufactured impeachment articles.”
It even mentioned “retribution."
“Rep. Adam B. Schiff lied to Congress and the American people with a totally made up statement about the President’s phone call,” it said. “Will there be no retribution?”
Trump took to Twitter to launch a rather predictable attack on Romney.
“Had failed presidential candidate @MittRomney devoted the same energy and anger to defeating a faltering Barack Obama as he sanctimoniously does to me, he could have won the election,” Trump said.
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, suggested that Romney should be kicked out of the Republican Party, saying: “He’s now officially a member of the resistance & should be expelled from the @GOP.”
The president was set to speak at noon on Thursday, and White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham again referred to some kind of retribution in the speech. “I think he’s also going to talk about just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that,” Grisham said on Fox News.
I mean, who could ever even think Trump would retaliate against people who vote against him!?
It’s important to emphasize that the quote Schiff used was thinly sourced. It was an anonymous quote attributed to one person in a CBS News story. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, CBS soon said that quote was summarizing the “general political atmosphere around the decision ahead for Senate Republicans” — so perhaps it wasn’t stated so directly.
It would be totally fair for Republicans to have denied that they had been told such a thing. But they took it quite a bit further, suggesting that the mere idea was out of bounds.
The fact is that whether this threat was ever directly communicated to GOP senators, there’s no question it was implied by Trump’s own actions over the past three years. He has repeatedly exacted political revenge on Republicans who don’t stand by him in key circumstances or who have the audacity to criticize him. He attacks them and tanks their numbers — and in many cases forces them to leave politics. He’s still attacking the late senator John McCain (Ariz.) for casting the deciding vote against the GOP’s health-care bill. And you really don’t need any other examples to see the chilling effect that might have on GOP senators when it comes to a vote as monumental as impeachment.
But even if we set that aside, Trump has indeed threatened Republican lawmakers — repeatedly. On that same health-care bill, he threatened dissenters with “political problems.” Around the same time, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Alaska’s senators — including Murkowski — that their relationship with the administration would be hurt by departing the party line on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. That’s according to the state’s other senator, Dan Sullivan (R), who called it a “troubling message.”
The Post also reported in July 2017 that at a lunch with GOP senators, Trump “threatened electoral consequences for senators who oppose him, suggesting that Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) could lose his reelection bid next year if he does not back the effort. The president also invited conservative opposition against anyone else who stands in the way.”
The pattern is obvious, and however direct the threat was in this case, there’s no mistaking what awaited any senator like Romney who voted against Trump. Trump has used retribution as perhaps his most effective political tool, keeping GOP lawmakers mostly in line and keeping himself relevant, even at the depths of his popularity.
Republican senators have plenty of reason not to admit they live in fear of Trump — with personal pride being high on the list. (Who likes the perception that they’re not actually acting on their conscience, after all?) But their over-the-top reaction to the mere idea that was the case has quickly been revealed for what it was.