The Republican Party has become a magnet for people with no moral compass
As senators Wednesday absorbed the videos at former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) bent his head down to his desk, and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) reached over to place a comforting hand on Lankford’s arm.
Throughout a day of excruciating evidence, showing police officers screaming in pain and rioters screaming angrily, some Republican senators reacted with visible emotion. Yet there was little indication they would change their minds and vote to convict Trump, holding on to the argument that a former president cannot be impeached.
If the Democratic House managers’ goal was to make it personally and politically painful for Republicans to clear Trump, they appeared to make headway Wednesday, raising the question of whether any more GOP senators would join the half-dozen who appear willing to consider conviction.
But it remained clear that Democrats would almost certainly fall far short of the 17 Republicans they need to join them for conviction. That created a vivid contrast between the emotion inside the Senate chamber and many senators’ legalistic explanations outside it.
“It made me angry,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said after House managers unveiled fresh footage of the insurrection. “For me, at least, it brings back a lot of anger.”
Not only were the GOP senators forced to confront the raw emotions of Jan. 6 and the danger they personally faced, they were also repeatedly reminded of Trump’s coarse language and tactics, and how he often targeted Republicans for abuse. Tweets were read aloud in which Trump threatened Republicans and bullied Vice President Mike Pence. Video footage of a separate march on Washington showed a Trump aide denouncing the Republican Party, with Trump supporters chanting, “Destroy the GOP.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (N.D.), like many Republican senators, heaped praise on the House managers’ presentation — shortly before stressing that it would not change his mind.
“There’s no question it’s well done,” Cramer said. “The images are — first of all, they’re real, it’s not manufactured, but they are put together in a way that adds, on purpose, to the drama of it. I don’t begrudge them that.”
But that does not mean Trump was responsible, Cramer added. “Senators are, you know, pretty analytical, as a matter of just a profession,” he said. “So it doesn’t affect me in terms of how I feel about the president’s culpability. That’s what’s on trial.”
That posture is the overwhelming one among Senate Republicans who have already decided Trump cannot be held accountable by Congress for inciting the violent mob on Jan. 6.
They have seized on the argument that the Senate has no authority to try a former president, confirmed through two procedural votes in which only a handful of Republicans broke with their party. More broadly, the landscape reflects the reality that few in the GOP are willing to take aim at a president who retains the loyalty of a large faction of the party.
“I’ll say this, the House has put themselves — put a real good team together,” Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) acknowledged. “That’s my observation.”
But will that change Inhofe’s mind? Would anything?
“Not from anything I’ve seen so far,” Inhofe responded. “And I can’t imagine what else is out there. We’ve had all this time for everyone to use every possible argument they could use. So I’ve heard them all.”
That has been the insurmountable hurdle that has confronted the House managers since the moment Trump was impeached Jan. 13 — a Senate Republican Conference that had so allied with Trump for the last four years and is responsive to a voter base that remains enthralled with the 45th president.
While a handful of Republicans have gone out of their way to show disengagement with the trial, the vast majority of GOP senators have been attentive and captivated.
Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) assiduously exchanged notes and whispered back and forth during the proceedings. Sasse, a vociferous Trump critic, had at least four stacks of note cards on his desk. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) flipped through pages in a thick binder, occasionally underlining phrases.
The notable exception has been Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has repeatedly been spotted doodling in a notepad.
When a video showed the rioters shouting “Stop the Steal!” nearly all the senators were fixated on the television screen. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) kept his eyes remained locked on the television as the gripping videos played, his face emotionless.
When House impeachment managers played never-before-seen security camera footage, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) sat with a hand over her masked mouth.
But the overriding feeling was that the managers’ presentation will ultimately matter little.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was among those paying close attention as House managers used footage and maps to show how close the attackers came to the lawmakers they had vowed to kill. A former solicitor general of Texas, Cruz commended the “impressive” lawyering of Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), the chief impeachment manager, and was rendered speechless by the rambling presentation of Trump defense attorney Bruce Castor.
But Cruz would hardly describe himself as keeping an open mind.
“The result of this trial is preordained,” said Cruz, who had mounted an effort to contest the electoral college results on Jan. 6. “President Trump will be acquitted. I think the trial is a waste of time and is the result of seething partisan anger on the part of congressional Democrats.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) took the opportunity to sit in the galleries above the Senate floor, an area where the public usually sits but has been left empty for the trial because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hawley’s feet were up on a chair as he studiously scanned through stacks of papers, which he later said were trial briefs from both legal teams.
“I’d say it’s more of the same,” Hawley said of the arguments Wednesday. “It’s also exactly what’s in the briefs, by the way. So it’s, I think, pretty predictable.”
Hawley, who last month contested the counting of the electoral college votes, repeatedly dismissed the House managers’ case as “nothing new here” and said he saw no grounds for a trial.
“If you don’t have jurisdiction, that’s just the end of the call,” Hawley said.
Republicans are also warning of a new precedent being set that could subject former presidents, even dead ones, to a Senate trial.
“I’ve continued to say that it is not constitutional to impeach and convict a former president,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “Do we go back to Jefferson? Do we go back to Johnson again? Do we go back to a Kennedy? Do we go back, you know — why and at what point does that stop?”
The lone exception to that unyielding stance has been Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), whose agony and internal deliberations seemed to play out on the Senate floor in real time.
While five Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the constitutionality of the trial both in a January vote and this week, Cassidy was the lone GOP senator who switched his position to join the Democrats.
On Wednesday, Cassidy spent much of the proceedings pacing in the back of the chamber, at one point looking captivated at a video clip that showed members of the pro-Trump mob. When he was at his desk, Cassidy took vigorous notes.
During the airing of the new security camera footage, Cassidy was clearly troubled, his right hand alternating between his temple and his mouth.
Still, Cassidy — facing censure threats from his own party in Louisiana — told reporters that his vote Tuesday only means he is keeping an open mind. But he also defended his position.
“The issue was, ‘Is it constitutional?’ ” Cassidy said. “At the end of the day, clearly it had been established that it was constitutional.”
Most Senate Republicans disagreed.
“I’ve said many times that the president’s rhetoric is at times overheated. But this is not a referendum on whether you agree with everything the president says or tweets,” Cruz said late Wednesday. “This is instead a legal proceeding, assessing whether the president has committed high crimes or misdemeanors.”