GOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party

Republican senators are wrestling over what they want their party’s future relationship with Donald Trump to be after he leaves office on Wednesday.

Faced with a deeply divided Senate Republican Conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is giving his colleagues free rein to vote their conscience when the Senate tries Trump on charges that he incited an insurrection.

McConnell is telling colleagues that he himself hasn’t decided whether to vote to convict Trump on a House-passed article of impeachment and associates describe the GOP leader “as furious” over that attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

The New York Times reported that McConnell has told associates that he sees the impeachment effort as a way for the Republican Party to break with Trump, although the GOP leader later discounted what he called “speculation” in the press.

A Senate vote to convict Trump would need at least 17 Republican votes to be successful, if all 50 Democratic senators vote to convict. A second vote could be held to prevent Trump from running for office again. That would require a simple Senate majority.

While a good number of Republican senators would like to break free of what they see as the destabilizing and often erratic leadership of Trump, Republican strategists and aides warn there is a serious political risk to banning him from future political office.

“I don’t think it’s an easy call, but I think there would be a lot more Republican support evident if it were not linked to the Democrats’ clear desire to prevent him from running for office ever again,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist. “That’s the real question politically.

“A lot of people in both parties who want Trump just gone think, ‘That’s good, we’ll just get rid of Trump. He can’t run again,’ ” he added.

But he cautioned the “hardcore Trump people, which probably means a majority of the Republican voters, still view Trump as their leader [and] they view the election as stolen.”

“If we take the step of banning Trump from running again, they’re not going to say anything’s been stolen. They’re simply going to say the power structure of the country has prevented our leader from running again and they’ll be right,” he added. “You’ve created an impossible situation in terms of trying to soften the divisions a little bit in the country and soften the vote on the hardcore pro-Trump side.”

Some Republicans are already using that as a justification to oppose impeachment.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), an influential member of the Senate GOP conference who led the effort to put together a Republican police reform bill last year, warned that impeaching Trump would undercut efforts to promote national unity after the strife of 2020.

“An impeachment vote will only lead to more hate and a deeply fractured nation,” he said, arguing that convicting Trump would “fly in direct opposition to what President-elect Joe Biden has been calling for all year.”

At the same time, outrage has mounted within the Senate Republican Conference as new details about last week’s attack on Congress emerge.

Federal prosecutors said in a court filing Friday that they had “strong evidence” the rioters who breached the Capitol intended “to capture and assassinate elected officials,” including Vice President Pence.

That revelation sparked outrage from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), an influential conservative who may run for president in 2024.

“These men weren’t drunks who got rowdy — they were terrorists attacking this country’s constitutionally-mandated transfer of power. They failed, but they came dangerously close to starting a bloody constitutional crisis. They must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Sasse said in a statement.  

Trump’s plummeting popularity, his words of encouragement to a crowd of supporters before the storming of the Capitol last week and his debunked and unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was stolen has GOP senators looking for a way to decisively break with the outgoing president.

A small group of Republican senators has signaled they are open to voting to convict Trump for inciting the crowd.

“I believe that this president has committed an impeachable offense through his words on the sixth of January, and leading up to the sixth of January, when he was not honest to the American people about the election and the election results,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told KTUU, an Alaskan news channel.

Sasse and Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have also either said Trump committed impeachable offenses or blamed him for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol.

But Republican aides say Democrats won’t get 17 GOP senators to vote to convict Trump after he leaves office.

“It’s an opportunity to purge Trump, yes. I don’t know there are 17 votes to do so. This is more of an opportunity for the Democrats to continue to try to destroy the Republican Party. What the Democrats have very successfully done is politicize impeachment with no hearings, no process in the House,” said a Senate GOP aide.

The aide predicted that Trump’s legal team will respond on the Senate floor with statements and videos by Democratic politicians urging their supporters to “fight” and expressing sympathy to the Black Lives Matter protests last year, which resulted in property destruction and deaths in several cities.

Already Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has been called on by several Democratic colleagues to resign because of his role in opposing the final tally of electoral votes for Biden, is pointing to Democrats’ support for the summer protests.

Some Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) will try to sidestep the question of whether Trump committed impeachable offenses by arguing that impeachment does not apply to a private citizen, which is what Trump will be by the time the Senate trial begins.

“The Founders designed the impeachment process as a way to remove officeholders from public office— not an inquest against private citizens,” he said in a statement.

There’s also growing uncertainty whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will even send the House-passed article of impeachment to the Senate this month as doing so would force a trial to begin immediately, which would stall work on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal Biden unveiled Thursday and hang up confirmation of his Cabinet nominees.

The Republican aide said Republicans are not likely to give Democrats consent to work on a coronavirus relief bill and confirm Biden’s nominees while the trial is going on, which means the incoming president’s agenda could be stalled for weeks.

Some Democrats are already balking at putting the Senate on pause for as long two weeks to a month to conduct an impeachment trial.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), an influential centrist, says holding a Senate trial after Trump leaves office “doesn’t make any common sense whatsoever.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Friday his priority is to move a relief package and Biden’s nominees before holding a trial to convict an ex-president.

The Senate trial could not begin before 1 p.m. on Jan. 20, after Trump is out of office, because the upper chamber is in a recess until Tuesday. 

Tags Ben Sasse Capitol breach Chris Murphy Donald Trump Impeachment Joe Biden Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Senate GOP Susan Collins Ted Cruz Tim Scott Tom Cotton
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