'A vote of conscience': GOP senators signal that Trump's fate is in their hands
Posted January 19, 2021 3:36 p.m. EST
CNN — A wide range of Senate Republicans are noncommittal about whether they are considering convicting Donald Trump of committing high crimes and misdemeanors at his upcoming impeachment trial, a sign that the soon-to-be former President's political future rests squarely with his fellow Republicans who are weighing whether to hold him accountable for the deadly riot in the Capitol this month.
As the Senate reconvened Tuesday for the first time since the pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol on January 6, a number of top Republicans pointedly refused to say if they'd consider convicting Trump for his role in inciting the crowd, trying to subvert the will of voters and lying for months about widespread fraud in the elections. Yet an outspoken faction of their colleagues warned their party not to take such a drastic step of forbidding Trump from ever holding office again, while other Republicans contended that convicting a former President would be unconstitutional, giving them a way to argue for acquittal while also criticizing Trump's conduct.
In interviews, several Republicans claimed they were keeping an open mind -- a sign that it remains far too early to know whether 17 Republicans would break ranks and join 50 Democrats to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection. How Republicans ultimately vote will come down to a mix of factors: The strength of the case brought by House Democrats, how the President's team mounts its defense and, perhaps most importantly, the mood of the country at the moment it comes time to cast the decisive votes.
"I've heard people talk about a vote of conscience, and I think that's a good way to put it," Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership team, told reporters on Tuesday.
The GOP positioning is another indication that Republican senators' posture toward Trump's second impeachment is markedly different than last year's trial, when virtually all GOP senators steadfastly aligned themselves with the President after the House impeached him over charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress.
This time, though, many GOP senators are disgusted at Trump's conduct as he cast doubt about the election results and fed lies to his supporters that Biden didn't actually win, ultimately leading to the pro-Trump mob that overran the Capitol as Congress was certifying Biden's electoral victory. There's wide expectation that the vote to convict will almost certainly be a bipartisan one and could very likely gain more than the support of just Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the lone Republican who voted to convict Trump on the abuse of power charge in 2020, but who says he's undecided now. Still, getting to 17 Republican defectors remains an open question.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the GOP whip who was critical of the doomed efforts by Trump allies to overturn the election in Congress, has been viewed as a potential swing vote. On Tuesday, Thune, who is up for reelection next year and is close to McConnell, punted when asked if the President committed impeachable offenses.
"It sounds like we're going to have a trial to examine that, and like all senators, I'll fulfill my constitutional duty and listen intently to the evidence, and we will come to the conclusion," Thune said.
Others took similar positions.
Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican up for reelection next year, told CNN that he would "do his duty" but refused to cast judgment on Trump's actions.
"I'm focused on the very near term, which is a peaceful transition of power," Young said. "I just spent a week traveling around the state of Indiana. That's really what's on people's minds. They were rattled, to put it mildly, by the events of January 6, and I've done my best to be part of the near-term healing and rebuilding of trust, and in trying to help people process that."
McConnell, who has privately indicated he thinks Trump committed impeachable offenses but said he would listen to the arguments in the impeachment trial before settling on a decision, set the tone on Tuesday when he pointedly blamed Trump for playing a key role in inciting the mob.
"The mob was fed lies," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "They were provoked by the President and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like. But we pressed on."
The Senate's second impeachment trial for Trump, which could begin within days, will force Republicans to go on the record one more time about how they view the outgoing President. If 67 senators convict Trump, they then could vote to bar him from running for office again by a simple majority of senators.
GOP senators close to Trump are warning that such as vote could backfire on the GOP, where Trump still holds significant sway among the base.
"It will destroy the party," Graham predicted when asked about a successful vote to convict Trump. "The Republican Party wants to move forward."
Congressional aides and senators have spent the past several days digging into the question about whether the impeachment trial is constitutional, with many concluding that there are arguments to make the case on either side. A number of other Republicans are making a constitutional case against the trial itself. That argument -- that the proceedings are unconstitutional -- could give GOP senators a way to argue that the President's conduct was improper without casting a politically tough vote to convict him.
"Why are we doing this when the President is out of office?" asked Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who said Tuesday she didn't think it was constitutional. "I have read arguments on both sides, but he is not our President after tomorrow."
The House Democratic impeachment managers -- and many other constitutional scholars -- argue that it's constitutional to move forward with an impeachment trial of a former President. While it would be unprecedented for the Senate to convict an ex-president, they point to precedent where the Senate has asserted it has the constitutional right to try former federal officers.
"We need to set a precedent that the severest offense ever committed by a President will be met by the severest remedy provided by the Constitution," Schumer said Tuesday. "Impeachment and conviction by this chamber as well as disbarment from future office."
For members up for reelection in 2022, the question of convicting Trump becomes even harder. Many members are running in states that Trump won. And some of those members have made it clear that they will weigh conviction with the question of what is best for uniting the country.
"My answer to anything that doesn't relate to the inauguration is I'll talk to you after the inauguration," said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican who is playing a central role in preparing for the Wednesday event but who also faces voters next year.
And some of Trump's Hill allies wouldn't lay out their thinking on Tuesday.
"I got to wait 'til I hear the evidence," Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the most senior Senate Republican, said Tuesday when asked if he thinks Trump committed impeachable offenses.
The timing of the Senate trial remains in flux, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has yet to send the article of impeachment to the Senate.
The impending trial gives Republicans some control over delaying Biden's agenda, if they choose to. While Democrats will control the Senate after Wednesday, Republicans can slow down the Senate so that it cannot conduct an impeachment trial and confirm Biden's nominees at the same time.
On Tuesday, Cornyn told reporters that he did not believe Republicans would be agreeing to divide the days in half so that the Senate could approve Biden's Cabinet nominees in the morning and then move to an impeachment trial each afternoon. Doing so would require 100 senators to agree, which, Cornyn said, "is not going to be possible."
"It's Nancy Pelosi's choice because once she sends the article of impeachment over, it displaces all other business," Cornyn said. "If she wants to delay the confirmation of President Biden's nominees to Cabinet positions and prevent President Biden from asking for and receiving additional Covid-19 relief, that would be one way to do it, so they have a big decision to make."
With so much uncertainty ahead, even some Republicans viewed as likely to convict have refused to show their hands.
"I'm going to wait and see the evidence as it's presented," Romney told CNN.