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The Distinct Shame of Senate Republicans

Think about what Republican senators must have known when they voted not to convict Trump during the second impeachment.
August 4, 2022
The Distinct Shame of Senate Republicans
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate Republican Luncheon in the U.S. Capitol Building on August 02, 2022 in Washington, DC. Negotiations in the U.S. Senate continue for the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Watching the House Select Committee on January 6th hearings I was struck by one overriding question.

As the various members of the White House staff and counsel’s office testified to witnessing a deranged president trying to overturn an election by sending a mob he knew was armed to sack the Capitol and harm his vice president—how much of this did Senate Republicans know when they voted to acquit Trump in his second impeachment on February 13, 2021?

Probably most of it. Maybe even all of it.

And what have they rushed to condemn since this all became public? None of it.

First, what did they know: The idea that the tiny network of the nation’s top Republicans were not circulating the ghastly details of Trump’s actions beginning on Election Day defies credulity.

Of course they would have known about the pressure Pence was under, surely by late December. Not only were these discussions happening all over town, but Pence himself was out and about seeking counsel, asking various Republicans if they could see any way out for him. If Dan Quayle knew what was going on from his house 600 miles away in Indiana, then Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz and the rest of the Republican Senate caucus must have known what was happening a mile from their offices.

But they had secrets to keep until the Senate runoffs in Georgia January 5. Mitch McConnell was only willing to say that overturning the election “would damage our Republic forever” after he’d lost his position as majority leader. To slightly invert Churchill, McConnell was given the choice of defeat or dishonor. He chose dishonor. And then he got defeat in the bargain, anyway.

Yet let’s pretend that, somehow, Republican senators had truly been innocent—like children they had genuinely not known anything about Trump’s intentions and actions before January 6.

Well, they surely learned about them on January 6. We know this because during the 187 minute span that afternoon, Trump called Republican senators. We know that he spoke with Tommy Tuberville and Josh Hawley. Who else did Trump call? And are we supposed to believe that neither of these men conveyed what they learned about Trump’s state of mind to their colleagues?

Again with the credulity.

And then there’s Mitch McConnell. The Republican leader’s wife, Elaine Chao, resigned from the administration because of the insurrection. Is there a separation of church-and-state in the McConnell household? Are we supposed to believe (1) that Chao resigned without knowing any of the details of Trump’s behavior and/or that (2) she never discussed any of this with her husband?

Or maybe she shared all of it and maybe that’s why McConnell delayed the impeachment trial until after Trump had left office. Since the base was nonplussed by the insurrection, Senate Republicans needed something to hide behind. Their cover story, for their grandchildren, is that they were counseled by their own renowned constitutional scholar, Sen. Rand Paul, who said they couldn’t convict someone who wasn’t president anymore.

Get it? Senate Republicans wouldn’t allow a vote on impeachment until after Trump had left and then claimed that they couldn’t vote to impeach because he wasn’t in office. Heads they win, tails America loses.

In the end only seven Republicans found Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection. Judging from all of the private concern anonymous sources have expressed, it seems safe to assume that most of the other 43 privately agreed. Probably even Hawley and Cruz, the 2024 wannabes who led the effort to decertify Joe Biden’s election. Certainly the other senators who didn’t vote to decertify, but who couldn’t vote to convict because they fancy they can run for president. Tom Cotton, Tim Scott, and Rick Scott all understood that doing their constitutional duty would get them evicted from MAGA-ville.

But there were other men in the Upper Chamber who dirtied their hands for Trump without any fantasies of a presidential campaign dancing in their heads. They sat at the leadership table or thought they were poster boys for the Constitution and they likely looked down on Cruz and Hawley running their pre-campaigns on Fox News and Twitter.

Lindsey Graham had also pressured Georgia election officials. Chuck Grassley suggested he could step in for Pence on the 6th, telling reporters the night before: “Well, first of all, I will be—if the vice president isn’t there and we don’t expect him to be there, I will be presiding over the Senate.” Mike Lee texted White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to “please tell me what I should be saying,” and worked to get Sidney Powell in to see Trump. Ron Johnson’s chief of staff tried to arrange for an envelope of fake electors to be given to Pence on January 6th but was rebuffed. Johnson, Grassley and Graham have all chaired powerful Senate committees, on variously Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the Judiciary and the Budget.

If we subtract those nine ambitious (or seditious) men, that still leaves 34 possible Republicans who could have joined the seven voting with Democrats to convict Trump. Like Richard Burr and Pat Toomey—who voted to convict—Rob Portman, Richard Shelby, and Roy Blunt are retiring and had no reelection campaigns to protect. And there are plenty of other Senators, safe in red-state seats, who must have known even more than what the House impeachment managers presented at the trial. Among those 34 surely ten of them could have helped bar Trump from future office by providing the votes to reach the required 67 supermajority for conviction.

Senate Republicans’ refusal to convict Trump for insurrection has not only invited future crises, but has permanently disemboweled impeachment as a constitutional mechanism. If the attempt to overturn democracy isn’t a convictable offense, then literally nothing is. We no longer have a workable mechanism for removing corrupt, wicked, or dangerous chief executives. And with that deterrence gone, we should expect more corruption, wickedness, and danger from future presidents.

McConnell’s historic cop out after the vote, blaming Trump for the attack after letting him off the hook, is one for the ages. Admitting that Trump had gotten away with it, McConnell said “He didn’t get away with anything yet,” and said Trump was “still liable for everything he did while in office.”

And yet McConnell is not, as one might have imagined on February 13, 2021 when he excoriated Trump, now calling for the attorney general to investigate whether the former president committed a crime.

Because months later, after all of the cowardice with their impeachment votes, Senate Republicans had a chance to redeem themselves. Instead they blocked the creation of a 9/11-style, independent commission to investigate the insurrection.

Today, a year and a half after January 6, Donald Trump is on his way to announce his third campaign for the presidency, 70 percent of Republicans believe the Big Lie, the Department of Justice is investigating the largest crime in history—and Senate Republicans are silent.

Trump corrupted our democracy because people let him. Senate Republicans were complicit in it. They absolved him twice knowing everything. They attempted to prevent the rest of the public from uncovering what they knew. And now that the public is finding everything out anyway, yet they say nothing.

Long after Trump is gone, their legacy will remain.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.