Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The McSally Maneuver

At this point, the goal of impeachment is simply forcing Republican senators to admit the truth.
January 17, 2020
The McSally Maneuver

On Thursday, in the halls of Congress, Senator Martha McSally was asked a simple question by reporter Manu Raju: “Should the Senate consider new evidence as part of the impeachment trial?” Her reply:

“Manu, you’re a liberal hack. I’m not talking to you. You’re a liberal hack.”

This seemed a bit dramatic, until a few minutes later when McSally’s staff put out a video of the exchange, revealing that this wasn’t a fit of pique, but rather a heel turn. That’s what they call it in the sports-entertainment business, anyway. In the political-entertainment business they call it “Pulling a Stefanik.”

It’s a small thing, but this fleeting moment reveals something interesting about the GOP’s posture as the Senate trial begins.

They all know Trump is guilty. The only question is whether or not they can avoid admitting this, out loud, before they vote to acquit him. Every action Republicans take in the coming days should be viewed through the lens of them casting about for a strategy that lets them avoid telling voters what they actually believe.

Last week on Fox, Brit Hume said the quiet part loud when trying to explain the GOP senators’ actions:

Just for the sake of discussion. If John Bolton comes in and he says: “Yep the president wanted the Bidens, and he withheld the aid for a time to try and get that done”—I don’t think that adds anything to the sum of our knowledge. I don’t think very many senators are going to say that they think Trump did that or that he’s guilty of that but I think most of them think that he did.

Okie dokie then.

The weird thing about this is that Hume seems to think that by admitting that GOP senators privately know the president pressured a foreign government to launch a sham investigation against his political rival, he’s providing cover for the senators rather than revealing their dishonesty.

It’s just one more example of the weird logic of Trumpism: Voters like Trump because he “tells it like it is,” but demand that Republican senators pretend that things are what they aren’t. Kind of like how Republican voters have no choice but to vote for Trump; but Republican senators who think about crossing Trump are told that MAGA nation will never vote for them again if they do it.

Funny how that works.

Anyway, whatever Hume’s motivations, as an analytical matter his statement was obviously true. The president did what he is accused of doing. It’s right there in the transcript he keeps telling everyone to read! And every senator does, in fact, know it.

So the question for Republican senators becomes how to balance their knowledge that the president is guilty, with the fact that they are deathly afraid of saying anything the White House might think is disloyal.

This fear of Trump reprisals is not irrational.

Just last week, Trump butt boy Matt Gaetz found himself in Trump’s dog house for circulating a letter that would limit the president’s ability to further escalate the simmering battle with Iran. The Washington Post reported that a Trump aide said the White House would not be returning the Florida Republican’s calls, texts, “smoke signals or his kneelings in the snow.” If a human remora fish like Gaetz can lose favor with Trump over such a small disagreement, that doesn’t leave much wiggle room for senators, especially those who have less goodwill built up with the MAGA base.

Which brings us back to McSally.

Martha McSally’s options are limited.

She could vote to allow witnesses, which would mean resigning herself to the fact that additional evidence will come out implicating Trump. Which would in turn mean having to vote to acquit him on the basis that his actions were inappropriate but not impeachable—as Senator Pat Toomey has already said. And she would then have to hope when Trump inevitably rage tweets about betrayals, it will be at a random cable news pundit, and not her.

Alternately, she can refuse to engage this impeachment on the merits, reject all additional information that could embarrass Trump, flip the bird to the “fake news media,” and spin nonsense about how Trump deeply, personally cares about Ukranian corruption because this is just Deep State desk jockeys attempting a coup against the greatest president of all-time. And if she does that:

So which door did you think she was going to pick?

Senate Republicans have spent three years getting comfortable telling lies while running interference for Trump. They have no—literally zero—political incentives to stop now. Of course they’re going to choose Door Number Two, for as long as it’s practicable.

The question, then, is how long it will remain so. Can Republican senators run out the clock on a month-long impeachment using the bullshit, deflect-and-attack-CNN strategy? Maybe.

If they refuse to allow witnesses, this task becomes easier.

But the text messages, notes, and letters turned over by Lev Parnas showed us on Wednesday that it isn’t just witnesses that Republicans have to fear. The introduction of almost any new information is going to make it harder for Republicans, which is why you see people such as Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst trying to shut down the inclusion not just of witnesses, but of all additional information, period.

And in case that fails, we have Ted Cruz floating a plan to turn the hearing into a shiny object sham, featuring Hunter Biden’s baby mama and the DNC server analysts.

Republican senators have already committed themselves to outcome that is the inverse of what they know to be true.

So the question for Democrats isn’t how to get a conviction. It’s how to force the GOP to admit the truth while they disregard it.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.