For several days now, the Republican Party’s impeachment defense of President Trump has been marked by a rather notable omission: any real defense of his conduct leading up to the siege of the U.S. Capitol last week.
That imbalance was particularly pronounced as the House debated his impeachment Wednesday. In fact, there were more Republicans supporting Trump’s impeachment or otherwise rebuking his conduct than actually defending or even litigating it.
Most notably, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) became the second top GOP leader in Congress’s two chambers in 24 hours to fault Trump, joining Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who signaled an openness to convicting Trump.
McCarthy opposed impeachment, but said: “That doesn’t mean the president is free from fault. … The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump to accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term.”
McCarthy said he supported a censure resolution against Trump instead.
Trump, to this point, hasn’t accepted responsibility. In fact, he said Tuesday that he saw nothing wrong with what he said before his supporters stormed the Capitol.
McCarthy’s comments came shortly before another House Republican, Rep. Dan Newhouse (Wash.), announced his support for impeachment. But while others, like McCarthy, stopped short of that, a few others joined him in finding fault.
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.), for instance, suggested Trump had erred in his “judgment.”
“I’m not saying the president didn’t exercise poor judgment,” Arrington said. “But to criminalize political speech by blaming lawless acts on the president’s rhetoric is wrong.”
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) went further, saying Trump had indeed committed impeachable offenses. But Roy said that was not because he incited the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, as the single article of impeachment alleges. Rather, Roy cited Trump’s urging of Vice President Pence to overturn the election, a situation to which Roy objected in real time.
“The president of the United States deserves universal condemnation for what was clearly, in my opinion, impeachable conduct: pressuring the vice president to violate his oath to the Constitution to count the electors,” said Roy, who is a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who led the effort to overturn the election results in Congress.
As the vote was taking place, Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) also put out statements rebuking Trump.
“I strongly condemn the president’s rhetoric and his behavior,” McCaul said, adding, “Let me also say, there very well may have been impeachable offenses committed leading up to, and on, that tragic day.” McCaul objected to a rushed process, but acknowledged that more could come out about Trump’s actions that might make him regret his decision, saying such things could “put me on the wrong side of this debate.”
Crenshaw added that “we condemn the president for the words and actions which contributed to these events, and encourage every member of Congress to similarly condemn.” Crenshaw also said Trump’s “actions were reckless. No President should ever, among other things, promote clearly unconstitutional theories that risk the stability of our nation and, in particular, do so to the detriment of the peaceful transition of power.”
An examination of the developments on the House floor shows there were by comparison few Republicans actually willing to delve into what Trump did and when.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) qualified that he didn’t like Trump’s speech. But, somewhat similarly to Roy, he said he was more concerned about Trump suggesting Congress could decline to accept the results of the electoral college. And, like Arrington, he suggested Trump’s words were simply freedom of speech.
“If we impeached every politician who gave a fiery speech to a crowd of partisans, this capital would be deserted,” McClintock said. “That’s what the president did. That is all he did.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) argued that Trump merely had “political Tourette’s” syndrome, in that he says what’s on his mind without a filter and that last week was no different.
“Is he a clear and present danger? He clearly isn’t,” Issa said. “The president has acted substantially the same for four years. He has rallied his base, and he has, in fact, called for peaceful protest, as he did just a few days ago. … What happened last week was the result of anarchists who came loaded, prepared and with weapons.”
Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) offered a similar defense.
“There was no language in the president’s speech that incited or provoked violence,” Steube said. “In fact, at around the 18-minute mark, he stated and I quote, ‘Peacefully and patriotically, make your voices heard.’ You may think that he’s inciting violence because he believes there is election fraud. That’s his opinion.”
The GOP’s most ready defense of Trump would indeed seem to have been citing this line from Trump’s speech. It was notably surrounded by plenty of other comments that could be read to spur drastic action — and plenty of past comments that suggested violence by his supporters. But even if that line provides some plausible deniability, what was particularly telling Wednesday was how few Republicans even invoked it. Besides another mention by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), it wasn’t really a feature off the defense. And apart from it, there was almost nothing in the way of actually addressing Trump’s culpability or lack thereof.
It sets up an interesting Senate trial, in which Trump’s defense will probably be forced to actually confront what he said and did more directly. But it’s also indicative of the position in which the GOP finds itself politically: It sees actually standing up for Trump as a less-productive response than diverting attention to other things.
That might not mean Trump deserves impeachment, but it does indicate how much Republicans have decided they don’t actually want to have that conversation after the ugly scenes last week.