The Memo: GOP senators face defining vote on Trump 

Republican senators are facing a historic choice after both sides in the impeachment trial of former President Trump rested their case Friday.

No one expects the number of Republicans who defy Trump to reach the total required for conviction — 17, assuming all Democrats vote the same way. But the final vote, expected Saturday or Sunday at the latest, will be a key test of the mood in a divided party.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) became the only senator ever to vote to convict a president of his own party at the climax of Trump’s first impeachment trial, a year ago. If Romney votes to convict again this weekend, he might have more company.

Four GOP senators joined Romney late last month in asserting that Trump’s trial was constitutional. They are Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.). A similar vote earlier this week saw their ranks expand by one, when Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) joined them.

If even five or six GOP senators decide that Trump ought to be convicted, it would be the most bipartisan vote of its kind in American history — even as it would be well short of the super-majority required to produce an actual conviction.

GOP strategist Alex Conant, a former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said he believed such an outcome would say “that there are a significant number of Republicans who were repulsed by Trump’s actions after the election and want to hold him accountable. Now, it is not a majority of Republicans by any means…but it suggests there are a significant number of Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump moving forward.”

Such a vote would underline the deep fissures in a party that is still trying to grapple with the legacy of the 45th president — and with his magnetic hold on the party’s grassroots activists.

In recent weeks, battles over the House leadership position of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and the committee assignments of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have been, in effect, proxy wars about Trump. Cheney voted to impeach the former president in the House, while Greene is a fervent Trump supporter.

The outcome, internally, was a split decision: Cheney held onto her leadership post but Greene was only stripped of her committee posts after a full vote of the House. Only 11 Republican House members voted against Greene, a conspiracy theorist who has encouraged violence against political opponents.

Now, Republican senators are in the position of having to declare their hand about a former president who lost the White House, is widely believed to have contributed to the loss of the Senate, stands accused of inciting a riot that placed their lives in danger — and yet remains formidably popular with the GOP base.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted Feb. 6-9 indicated 87 percent of Republican voters believe Trump should not be convicted, even as the overall electorate favors that outcome by a modest plurality, 47 percent to 42 percent. 

The same proportion of Republicans, 87 percent, said they had a favorable view of Trump overall. Among the general public, that figure was just 39 percent.

In light of polls like that that, it’s notable that of the six GOP senators who affirmed the constitutionality of the trial earlier this week, Toomey is retiring at the next election; Cassidy, Collins and Sasse have just been reelected and therefore have six years until they face voters again; and the other two, Murkowski and Romney, have long shown an independent streak where Trump is concerned.

It is not even a sure thing that all six will vote to convict. Cassidy was spotted carrying notes Friday that appeared to rationalize a vote to acquit Trump, though his office insisted that he is keeping an open mind.

Republicans who are inclined to back Trump got something to buttress their case Friday when the president’s legal team presented its defense. It centered on quoting Democratic politicians who had also made inflammatory remarks, and on insisting Trump was not directly responsible for the ransacking of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

But the relatively brief defense came after three days of emotive testimony from Democratic impeachment managers.

Previously unseen footage of the riots was particularly powerful, as senators watched some of their colleagues, including Romney and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), having near-misses with the mob.

It is clear the GOP will not make a definitive break with Trump, even though their position poses perils for the party with the broader electorate.

In the initial aftermath of the insurrection, it appeared such a break could happen, as then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and even stauncher Trump allies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), were critical of the then-president.

Any momentum for that cause has dissipated markedly since then.

For Republicans skeptical of Trump, their best hope now is that the former president will gradually fade from the scene.

“He is likely finished as a candidate, but he remains a significant force in the Republican Party,” said Ryan Williams, a former Romney aide. “What remains to be seen is whether he can maintain his influence or if other figures emerge to fill the void.”

Williams added, “I think Republicans want to move beyond this and look toward the future — a future that focuses on leaders other than Trump.”

This weekend’s vote will show just how firmly the GOP is willing — or unwilling — to close the book on Trump.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.


Tags Ben Sasse Bill Cassidy Capitol breach Charles Schumer Donald Trump Impeachment Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Liz Cheney Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pat Toomey Susan Collins
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