The GOP's impeachment 'prisoner's dilemma'

The GOP's impeachment 'prisoner's dilemma'
© Bonnie Cash

Republican senators’ upcoming Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE impeachment vote is a variation of the classic prisoner’s dilemma game. They’re incentivized to cooperate on impeachment, thus taking a major step toward loosening Trump’s harmful grip on their party. But if they fail, many could face a reckoning from the GOP electorate.

So they’re facing a nearly impossible task of threading the needle between maintaining conservative support and stopping the nationally unpopular former president from running in 2024. And with a new poll from The Hill showing 64 percent of Republicans would leave their party for a new Trump-led party, this is no longer a containable threat. An unvanquished Trump could turn the GOP into a third party overnight. 

Therefore, each Republican’s optimal scenario is voting “nay” on conviction while at least 17 GOP colleagues vote “aye.” This would prompt a simple majority vote to ban Trump from ever holding elected office again.  

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Of course, this scenario is largely a pipe dream, as it would require nearly a third of Republican senators to sacrifice their own political well-being for the good of the party. The recent tabling of Senator Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment Masks and vaccines: What price freedom? MORE’s (R-Ky.) procedural motion on the constitutionality of impeaching an ex-president was a precursor to the impeachment vote. Only five Republicans joined the Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents: Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWelcome to ground zero of climate chaos A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate Bipartisan blip: Infrastructure deal is last of its kind without systemic change MORE (Me.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRepublican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee Trump endorses GOP challenger to Upton over impeachment vote Businesses want Congress to support safe, quality jobs — so do nearly all Americans MORE (Alaska), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Democrats aim for maximum pressure on GOP over debt ceiling MORE (Utah), Ben SasseBen SassePresident of newly recognized union for adult performers boosts membership Romney blasts Biden over those left in Afghanistan: 'Bring them home' Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal MORE (Neb.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (Pa.).

Other potential GOP defectors on impeachment include Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill Senate votes to end debate on T infrastructure bill MORE (N.C.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken McConnell: Republicans 'united in opposition to raising the debt ceiling' MORE (Ohio), neither of whom are running for reelection in 2022.  Portman even acknowledged that the Paul motion was “a totally different issue” than the impeachment vote. 

The highest stakes rest with the dozen or more GOP senators perceived as presidential hopefuls in 2024 or beyond — including Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens US gymnasts offer scathing assessment of FBI MORE (Tenn.), Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal MORE (Ark.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails The Memo: Like the dress or not, Ocasio-Cortez is driving the conversation again Ocasio-Cortez defends attendance of Met Gala amid GOP uproar MORE (Texas), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization More Republicans call on Biden to designate Taliban as terrorist group Top Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal MORE (Iowa), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right Hawley pledges to slow walk Biden's Pentagon, State picks over messy Afghanistan exit MORE (Mo.), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeEconomy adds just 235K jobs in August as delta hammers growth Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit Afghanistan fiasco proves we didn't leave soon enough MORE (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE (Fla.), Rick Scott (Fla.), Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Lobbying world As Biden falters, a two-man race for the 2024 GOP nomination begins to take shape MORE (S.C.), John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneManchin-McConnell meet amid new voting rights push Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate MORE (S.D.), and also Sasse.  

Could any Republican win the 2024 primary after issuing the harshest condemnation of someone 82 percent of Republicans still support? Sasse is taking a stand. Perhaps one or two others — particularly those planning to wait eight to 12 years — might wager that Trump’s intra-party popularity will wane by the time they run for higher office. But it’s a tough sell given the party’s efforts to destroy the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach. 

Of the remaining 11 GOP senators up for reelection in 2022, the relatively vulnerable Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senator: Buying Treasury bonds 'foolish' amid standoff over debt ceiling, taxes Internal poll shows Barnes with 29-point lead in Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate facing 4 felony charges MORE (Wis.) is in the toughest spot, should he even decide to run. Historically one of the top 20-25 most conservative senators, in 2019 he pivoted leftward on votes — a hedge as he continues to embrace Trump as tightly as any Republican.  It would be shocking if he abandons Trump now.

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Among the remaining senators facing reelection in 2024, only Mike BraunMichael BraunRepublicans unveil bill to ban federal funding of critical race theory Earmarks, the swamp's favorite tool, return to Washington Senate in talks to quickly pass infrastructure bill MORE (Ind.) hails from a state that’s not heavily red, though he has little to gain by convicting Trump and risking a bloody primary fight. As for 16 other senators up in 2026, Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime How to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) MORE (N.C.) — and to a lesser extent Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Daines to introduce bill awarding Congressional Gold Medal to troops killed in Afghanistan Powell reappointment to Fed chair backed by Yellen: report MORE (Mont.) and John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (Texas) — might need to answer for their vote eventually.  But no one else will be imperiled if they play it safe and vote “nay.” 

So we should assume Republicans won’t cooperate to rid themselves of a still ambitious Trump. Most are in political survival mode, placing self-interest above the interests of their party and the country. 

But if in one or two years Trump announces he’s running again — whether for the Republican nomination or as the leader of a new party — many GOP senators will wish they’d stopped him when they had the chance. Because political self-interest isn’t just about winning elections. It’s also about wielding power. And Republicans won’t be any closer to retaking power in Washington if they let Trump imprison them.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.