We’ve known all along that it wasn’t Trump who is on trial in this Senate exercise but the Senate itself and particularly its Republican members. The last few hours have witnessed their convicting themselves more clearly than I could have anticipated. A short time ago news broke that Sen. Murkowski was a vote for no witnesses.
This matched with a flurry of new statements from Republican Senators explaining or justifying their votes. Last night, retiring Sen. Alexander said that all the charges against the President had been proven. But they were only “inappropriate” not wrong or impeachable. Sen. Sasse told reporters that Alexander spoke for him and other Senators. Then a few moments ago, Sen. Rubio seemed to concede that the charges were not only proven but that they were in fact impeachable but that it was still best not to convict. “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.”
Murkowski’s statement was the most comical. She announced that she had decided there couldn’t be a fair trial so she was simply giving up. “I have come to the conclusions that there will be no fair trial in the Senate. I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed.”
We can and should criticize these excuses. But what is important to see is how much Republican senators are struggling to justify and explain their decision, not only on the eventual verdict but on even holding a real trial. These are bad explanations but their badness is underlined by their complexity. When you’re arguing that well, we knew he did it and that’s why we endorsed the refusal to testify and later endorsed not even holding a trial because even though we knew he did it it seemed like a bad idea to remove him from office. If that’s your argument you’re losing.
The numbers are also key. The vote looks set to be 51 to 49. Had a single Republican Senator shifted their vote it would have been 50 to 50. Chief Justice Roberts would have cast the deciding vote. Many assume that Roberts would have backed the GOP majority. And they may be right. But he might have voted for witnesses.
The simple fact is that every Republican Senator individually (including Gardner, Ernst, McSally, Tillis, Purdue, et al.) had the power to open the door for witnesses and each chose a vote that foreclosed it. Each is individually responsible for shutting down the trial even as many or most Republican Senators say they agree that the charges against the President were proven.
How damaging an electoral argument is that? Polls say as many as 70% of the public wanted witnesses and a real trial. But the real tell to me is how hard a time these senators, even ones not up for reelection are having justifying or explaining the vote. Even today. That spells weakness and vulnerability.