Today, though, that calculus has shifted significantly. And now some top Republicans have set about an extraordinary effort to shift it even further away from Trump.
For years, Trump has commanded fealty among his party. Fearful of a presidential tweet or a primary challenge — or worse — congressional Republicans have danced around addressing Trump’s worst impulses. The few who have deigned to criticize him forcefully often found themselves without a political base and bowed out of office. The party has occasionally rebuked him en masse, but generally on niche issues, including foreign policy, that wouldn’t necessarily animate such a backlash.
But we saw something different Tuesday: the emergence of what appears to be a genuine political effort to move the party beyond Trump and Trumpism. An attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week, which even some top allies have attached to his rhetoric about a “stolen” election, has infused some Republicans with heretofore-unseen moral indignation and desire to turn the page.
Three House Republicans of varying stripes were the first to signal that Democrats’ looming impeachment this week would be a bipartisan affair. Rep. John Katko (N.Y.) comes from a difficult Upstate New York district. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) has been a frequent and increasingly vocal Trump critic. Likewise Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), who injected some political heft into the effort as the No. 3-ranking House Republican.
Cheney’s decision was the biggest of those three, by virtue of her stature in the party and the fact that she comes from one of the most pro-Trump seats from the 2020 election. Wyoming gave Trump more than 70 percent of its vote just two months ago.
The number of GOP impeachment supporters in the House is still small — and seems likely to remain so — but what matters is the Senate, where their votes would be required and where members are more apt to take principled stands.
That’s why Cheney’s announcement wasn’t the most significant development Tuesday night. That distinction would belong to the signals emanating from the office of the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The Washington Post has confirmed that McConnell believes Trump probably committed impeachable offenses with his conduct before the siege of the Capitol. Mind you, McConnell hasn’t committed to voting against Trump, but the fact that he’s even considering it sent shock waves through Washington.
McConnell’s move could be understood a number of ways, including as a genuine matter of conviction. He played along for a time, but McConnell went out front among congressional Republicans in declaring the presidential election over, so it’s not like he’s a newcomer to denouncing Trump’s effort to overturn the election.
But even if that’s the case — and whatever you think of McConnell — he’s a skilled political operator. It’s difficult to view this as anything other than a calculated threat. Trump is staring down the barrel of becoming the first president in history to be impeached twice, and McConnell’s reported posture indicates he could also be the first to actually suffer a conviction vote in the Senate. That could mean an early removal from office or some kind of post-presidential sanction, but either way it would be a historic black mark on Trump’s legacy. McConnell seems to be leaving it up to Trump to decide whether he wants to go through all of that.
Whether that’s because McConnell truly intends to bring his party along with such an effort and try to get 67 votes in the Senate remains to be seen. Perhaps he’s truly hedging his bets. Perhaps he’s wielding this to prevent Trump from doing something even more drastic in his final days in office. We still don’t have McConnell on the record, so we’re left to read between the lines.
But it’s clearly a power play. Reports indicate McConnell views this as a chance to move the party beyond Trump and the long shadow he could cast over it in the years to come. But Trump could just as easily try to call a bluff.
From there, the question would be who actually holds the cards. The fealty Republicans have shown Trump is no coincidence; it’s because he has reinvented his adoptive party. Any attempt to push him aside could just as well be met with a backlash. And even if his loyalists wind up being outnumbered, it could splinter the party. The fact that McConnell would even dip his toe in this water with an incoming 50-to-50 Senate that could just as well turn back Republican in 2022 (midterms are usually unkind to the incumbent president’s party) is something.
Polling currently suggests Trump’s support has taken a hit in recent days, with both Quinnipiac University and Marist College showing his approval rating dropping into the 70s among Republicans. That’s significant, but it means a huge majority of the party is still onboard.
What’s more, a CBS News/YouGov poll released Wednesday morning showed 84 percent of Republicans didn’t think Trump should resign or be removed from office. Some of them said that’s mostly because he’s only got a week left, but about 60 percent of all Republicans said Trump should remain in office because he “did not do anything wrong to deserve removal or resigning.”
That’s what the likes of Cheney and McConnell could be up against.
At the same time, 60 percent of all Americans in the Quinnipiac poll said Trump was undermining democracy, and majorities held him responsible for what happened last week at the Capitol and said he should either resign or be removed from office. So whatever the intraparty politics, he appears to be exiting office as an even bigger liability than he has been for four years. And given he’s the first president since 1932 to lose reelection, the House and the Senate, that’s saying something.
Much remains to play out in the hours and days ahead, but the bet being placed by the likes of Cheney and McConnell (or at least in McConnell’s case, threatened) is certainly a significant one. If Trump bucks and fights, they could find themselves marginalized and their party divided. Trump could even use it to reassert his control of the party.
It’s also a bet that would have seemed pretty unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago, when you would have said Hawley was the one with a big future in the party and Cheney could be squandering hers. But things do change, and we’re about to find out who truly has sway moving forward.
This post has been updated.