In sparing the president a continued spectacle, the senators pointedly offered the defense that many GOP senators wished to make all along: That Trump’s actions, while odious, were not deserving of the political death sentence.
As more revelations from former national security adviser John Bolton’s book flowed, senators shrugged. They knew what he’d done, they said. It was not great, they added, but not that bad. They were ready to move on.
“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,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky.
He then explained why he would not vote against the president. “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,” Alexander said.
While the terms were entirely different, it was in one respect similar to former president Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial: Democratic senators impugned Clinton’s conduct and questioned his morals for lying about sex in the White House — but did not believe it rose to the level of impeachable offenses.
A number of Republican senators agreed that Trump should not have asked Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, former vice president Joe Biden’s son, during the phone call while raising a debunked theory about a Democratic National Committee server and Ukrainian interference in the election.
That Trump should not have withheld foreign aid to Ukraine for months, raising questions about the United States’ support for the country at war with Russia and sending Congress and the foreign policy firmament into a perplexed tizzy.
That Trump should not have involved his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani in an irregular foreign policy channel to “attempt to interfere in an investigation,” in Giuliani’s own words.
And that Trump should not have ousted career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine after a smear campaign that even some of his own administration officials admitted was filled with erroneous information.
Many of the senators did not try to justify or explain the president’s conduct. Some mentioned an election in nine months or other Trump accomplishments. “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,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.
Alexander said the case had been proved. Trump was guilty. He was just not going to convict.
“Wrong and inappropriate,” said Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who repeatedly asked the administration to release the aid to Ukraine. That was in a statement when he declared he wanted to hear no more.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate Republican who delivered the death blow for a Democrat-led bid to hear from more witnesses, instead attacked Congress for not doing its job.
The terrible-but-not-impeachable defense rang hollow to some of the president’s critics. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), one of the House impeachment managers, talked of the “Dershowitz Principle of Constitutional Lawlessness,” referring to Alan Dershowitz, one of Trump’s attorneys, and his expansive legal arguments.
Trump was unlikely to enjoy the statements, even if he liked the votes. He had repeatedly told lawmakers that he did not want to give an inch, and wanted lawmakers, surrogates and allies to reiterate his oft-said statement that the call was “perfect.”
“I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL,” he posted, in all caps, on Jan. 16. “What I said on the phone call with the Ukrainian President is ‘perfectly’ stated,” Trump tweeted in November.
“READ THE TRANSCRIPTS!” he said, turning what some advisers believed was the most damning piece of evidence into his cri de coeur of innocence.
He told senators and allies that he did not want to distance himself from Giuliani when they suggested the lawyer’s actions were potentially an albatross. In a statement Friday, he called Giuliani “one of the greatest corruption fighters in America and by far the greatest mayor in the history of N.Y.C.”
He never conceded — as some lawmakers did — that his treatment of Yovanovitch was poor, instead taunting her on Twitter as she testified in the House about her abrupt firing and the threats she received.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” he wrote as she spoke. “. . . It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”
As he stepped out of the White House one week after the impeachment inquiry was launched, he did not back down from calling for political investigations into his opponent. Instead, he called for China to investigate the Biden family as well — doubling down on the original sin with a new country.
Even in private, advisers say Trump has repeatedly stated it was a perfect phone call, that he does not understand, or at least will not admit, the impropriety of what he did.
“He genuinely believes he did nothing wrong,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, said in a recent interview.
Dershowitz said he was pleased with the statements from the senators who criticized the president’s conduct but said they would not remove him.
“That’s right,” he said, asked if that was the point of his argument. “My argument was whether or not you think he did anything wrong, it was it did not rise to the level of impeachment.”
Dershowitz declined to comment when asked if he thought the president did anything wrong, or whether the call was perfect.
“That’s something we should all take into account when we vote in nine months,” he said.