Jurisprudence

Stop Assuming Republican Senators Will Do the Right Thing

A new genre of impeachment fantasy theorizes that Trump accomplices will suddenly find their spines. Don’t buy it.

Mitch McConnell at a lectern, with John Barrasso, John Thune, and Joni Ernest
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. John Barrasso, Senate Majority Whip John Thune and Sen. Joni Ernst participate in a news briefing on Sept. 10 at the U.S. Capitol
Alex Wong/Getty Images

If this were a rom-com, instead of a constitutional crisis, I like to think the ending would go something like this: Senate Republicans, crashing through an airport departures gate (it always involves crashing through an airport departures gate) would catch up with Senate Democrats somewhere around the metal detectors and tearfully acknowledge that, yes, Donald Trump is not merely destroying America but also the soul of the Republican Party, and that although the party has been blind and shortsighted, it has also realized the error of its ways, and yes, it was you all along. And then there would be tears, and clapping and reconciliation, as underpaid TSA workers high-five one another and an optional dance number would break out. The whole thing would be a real Christmas blockbuster.

Despite the fact that this is indeed a constitutional crisis, this rom-com-worthy sentiment has still persisted far too long: Democrats are problematically in love with the notion that underneath all of their politics and posturing, Republicans in the U.S. Senate are still dashing heroes with hearts of molten gold, and, despite years spent playing the bad boys, they’re really just waiting to do the right thing. Once the right moment comes, they will wake up and realize how easy it is to change course, and then, in a blaze of bipartisan glory, they will dump Donald Trump, reinstate shattered norms, and knit the country together into a more perfect union once more. Country before party, Me Before You, Tears and Recriminations. But also Happily Ever After.

The most recent iteration of what I have come to see as Republican Conscience Porn is a piece last week in Politico, by Juleanna Glover, who has worked as an adviser for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, and Rudy Giuliani, and also advised the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Jeb Bush. Her piece, titled “There’s a Surprisingly Plausible Path to Removing Trump From Office,” caused a minisensation by claiming that there is a mechanism whereby Republican senators could vote on impeachment by way of a secret ballot, if only three of them could find it in themselves to defect from the GOP monolith and “demand a secret ballot and condition their approval of the rest of the rules on getting one.” The secret ballot, as Glover notes, would enable the romantic fantasy scenario peddled by (former) Sen. Jeff Flake that holds that if there were a private vote on impeachment in the Senate, there would be at least 35 Republican votes to convict, because senators would come around and act like patriots, provided they could do so without the burden of public consequences.

Glover’s piece was blasted on Twitter by constitutional scholars—here is a tweetstorm by Josh Chafetz—pointing out that “this proposal has a big Article I, sec. 5, cl. 3 problem.” His constitutional arguments come down to the journals clause, and he further notes that the Senate’s own glossary would require the agreement of 80 senators in order to be kept secret. (Glover updated her piece to note the objections but maintains that the Senate can still largely create its own rules for impeachment).

The point here isn’t to cast judgment on Glover’s legal argument, or even on the more basic ethical question of whether it’s a good idea to diminish the rules of accountability and transparency in order to give Senate Republicans cover to do the right thing. The point is that this seems to be of a piece with a generalized romantic fantasy that elected Republicans are desperately seeking a mechanism that would allow them to do the right thing. Before Glover and Jeff Flake, GOP strategist Mike Murphy recently said that a sitting Republican senator told him 30 of his colleagues would vote to convict Trump if the ballot were secret. (That was the claim to which Flake responded that the number would more likely be 35.) Just before that, another rescue scenario held that that removing a president from office requires not a vote of two-thirds of the Senate, but rather of two-thirds of senators present for the proceedings. In this telling, if 30 GOP senators were, as Washingtonian’s Benjamin Woffard wrote, “seeking a way, as Flake suggested, to remove Trump while avoiding the rage of his base. They might boycott the proceedings—or, when the big day of the vote arrived, mysteriously not show up.” At that point the math would change—with only 70 members of the Senate now present, “the number of senators required to convict Trump is no longer 67. It’s 47: exactly the number of seats Democrats and independents currently hold in the Senate.” Again, there is nothing wrong with the math undergirding this scenario; it simply rests on the false predicate that Senate Republicans secretly loathe the president and are looking for a face-saving way to eject him.

Don’t believe it for a minute. Senate Republicans may be fussing internally about how best to play out the impeachment trial, but not one of them, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, is casting around for any kind of off-ramp here. As Renae Reints notes in Fortune, this isn’t even a close call. Republicans in the Senate are not looking for a principled reason, or even a pretext, that might allow them to follow their heart’s true desire and break with this president. “On the whole, however, Republicans side with party leadership,” Reints writes. “The latest Gallup poll on Trump’s job approval—conducted after the House launched their impeachment inquiry—show 87% of GOP voters are behind the president. This means Republican members of Congress are likely to stick behind Trump, regardless of what the independents or the other 13% of Republicans believe.”

There is no shame in wishing that Republicans secretly want to save America from the chaos, rancor, and daily moronic-ness that is Trump and Trumpism. In the days after the 2016 election, I used to soberly intone that Lindsey Graham was a patriot first and partisan second, and that the fault line between him and Trump would lie in the first cataclysmic national security crisis. I was, unfortunately, wrong about that, as I realized as we watched Helsinki unfold. Just as Democrats and Never Trumpers who looked to Rod Rosenstein or Robert Mueller or Jim Mattis to make like Harold and the Purple Crayon and draw an emergency exit were also living largely in a fantasy world. We soothed ourselves by believing Susan Collins and Jeff Flake were simply waiting for a reason to side with Christine Blasey Ford, but we were wrong there too. It’s mighty tempting to believe in an off-ramp, but every piece of data we have reveals that Mitt Romney isn’t going to shepherd Senate Republicans away from having permanently lashed themselves to Trump. There is no reason to believe that tweaking the Senate rules will do so either. The GOP plans to rise or fall with this president, and that shouldn’t surprise a soul. The funny thing about unrequited pining is that sometimes, it merely begets more unrequited pining.

Like the bad boy in the leather jacket chewing gum in the parking lot outside the high school gym, underneath the thuggish exterior, there sometimes lurks merely a thuggish interior. Republicans who can no longer even explain why they will vote to acquit Donald Trump will do it anyway, but despite all the cover, and the wishing, and the convenient off-ramps we devise, nothing will lead them to avail themselves of the opportunity to dump this president. So instead of twisting ourselves into taffy sculptures to see if there are any procedural tricks we can use to make it easy for them to do the right thing, we should acknowledge that, based on everything we have seen over the past three years, the most likely scenario is the simplest: Senate Republicans were never coming together to help Democrats save constitutional norms, values, or institutions, and they won’t do so now. We’re getting onto that plane all alone. And should they come round midway through the impeachment process, it won’t be because they have hearts of gold but because they realize they may lose everything: Recent elections suggest sticking with Trump may be a mistake, and recent polls suggest voters take the Ukraine allegations rather seriously. Their grappling seriously with that is the only possible happy ending here, and it doesn’t come with a montage.