The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Focus on the GOP senators weighing history’s judgment for Trump’s fate

Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), right, and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) are potential targets for Democrats looking for Republican votes in the Senate to remove President Trump. (Susan Walsh/AP)

House Democrats building their impeachment case against President Trump need to think like smart prosecutors who aren’t just trying to win a grand-jury indictment but also want to succeed in a jury trial.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has a clear majority in the House supporting her move to turn the investigation into a formal impeachment inquiry. With just the facts already known about Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate his domestic political rival, the president believes the House has a simple majority to essentially indict him with articles of impeachment.

If that’s the case, House committee chairmen might be able to begin building a case designed to actually turn some Senate Republicans against Trump. So far most attention, from Democrats and the media, has focused on a handful or so of Senate Republicans up for reelection next year in states where Democrats have either recently won or competed in presidential campaigns.

That’s a mistake.

Instead of the already vulnerable Republicans, Democrats should focus on a clutch of roughly 10 incumbents with several similar character traits: senior statesmen within their caucus who have either announced their plans to retire or have signaled they are likely to not run for reelection. These GOP senators are at the point in their careers where history’s judgment might mean more to them than the views of today’s conservative activists.

Some Democrats have taken note of this group, including Republicans such as Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.), because their remarks so far on Trump and Ukraine have been very brief or just nonexistent.

“I am not optimistic so far, but there is lots of silence,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who maintains good relations with many GOP senators, said Wednesday. “It has been unusually quiet. I think most of them are holding their breath.”

According to Congress, impeachment is a “coup.” Just as long as the president being impeached is a member of the same political party. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Alexander, for instance, issued a statement that took no side in Trump’s pressure campaign to compel Ukrainian investigations into former vice president Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter, simply acknowledging the fact that investigations are happening.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee is determining the facts in the Ukraine whistleblower matter, and I want to know the facts before I comment,” Alexander said in a prepared statement.

As The Washington Post has tracked their views, 14 GOP senators have expressed concerns or questioned Trump’s judgment. That list includes just four of the 19 Senate Republicans running for reelection next year.

The revealing splits in GOP senators’ reactions to impeachment

Alexander, 79, announced in December that he would not seek a fourth Senate term. Isakson, 74, who is battling Parkinson’s disease, announced his resignation effective at the end of this year. Burr, 63, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, is up for reelection in 2022 but has said he is not likely to run for a fourth term.

Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the respective chairmen of the Budget and Agriculture committees, were elected together in 1996 and are not running for reelection.

A spokesman for Enzi offered up a completely neutral statement the day Pelosi formally kicked off the impeachment inquiry. “He will be a jurist, listen to the evidence, and once all the evidence is in, he will make a final decision,” the aide said.

If a rebellion happens among GOP senators, it’s most likely to start with a group of these veterans who do not have any short-term political pain to suffer.

While the House needs just a simple majority to impeach Trump, a conviction and removal is far more difficult, requiring a two-thirds vote in the Senate. So at least 20 Republicans would need to join all 47 members of the Democratic caucus, and any hope for House Democrats is to begin getting a bloc of these Senate GOP veterans on board.

Some traditional conservatives, those who still hold nostalgia for the Reagan years of fighting the “Evil Empire” in Moscow, pine for Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to lead the charge against Trump. They believe his popularity at home could withstand the backlash, and that his past defeats in presidential bids mean he has given up that ambition.

But that’s not how the Senate works. Romney, 72, is a newcomer there, having just won his seat last year. Few Senate Republicans really know the former Massachusetts governor, with just a few months of trust.

Instead, the onetime corporate consultant at Bain Capital knows there is safety in numbers, and Romney would only jump into a full civil war against Trump if he had other GOP senators at his side.

‘Out on a limb’: Inside the Republican reckoning over Trump’s possible impeachment

Who is least likely to lead a rebellion? Those GOP senators running for reelection next year.

They are in a form of political paralysis that will most likely lead to vague statements sounding critical of Trump, but not quite backing the House’s impeachment or removal from office with a Senate vote.

“Hold up: Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth. If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement.

Sasse is all but certain to win reelection in November in his conservative state, but only if he wins the GOP primary next May. The filing deadline for those challenging him is March 1.

Filing deadlines for challengers to GOP incumbents in Colorado, Maine, Arizona and Iowa fall in mid-March and early April. Those primary contests will come in June or later next summer, well after an impeachment trial is likely to conclude.

Unless Trump’s standing falls with GOP voters — the latest Gallup Poll average had 87 percent approving of his job performance — these Republican incumbents would not reasonably expect to vote to remove the president from office and win their party’s nomination.

Just look at North Carolina. Sen. Thom Tillis (R) opposed Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to unilaterally shift money from military projects to fund border fencing. Despite reversing his position, Tillis still drew a primary opponent, and Tillis has tacked to the right with a full embrace of the president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), up for reelection next year, epitomizes that situation. McConnell faced an expensive primary in 2014, then went on to easily win a sixth term in a state that has grown increasingly conservative.

Now, with Trump fully behind his reelection, McConnell is coasting in the GOP primary, posting digital ads that make clear he has no intention of breaking with Trump.

“They finally convinced her to impeach the president,” he says of Pelosi in one ad. “All of you know your Constitution. The way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader.”

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