Jurisprudence

Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski Think Donald Trump Is No Longer a Danger

Collins and Murkowski walking together through the halls of Congress.
Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski arrive to a closed-door lunch meeting of GOP senators at the U.S. Capitol in October 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Senate is voting to acquit President Donald Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress following a marathon few days of speeches, half of which came from Republican senators justifying their votes to acquit. Having listened through the hodgepodge of whataboutism, process complaints, and occasional outright fascism, one hesitates to focus on Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins because their reputations as GOP “moderates” have always been more a stylist’s branding choice than reality, and because holding Republican women in power to a higher standard than men has never redounded to the benefit of anyone, including women. But when powerful women who should see through the gaslighting instead pick up the proffered gaslighting torch and set small brushfires, it’s worth taking note. Certainly, the Susan Collins who persuaded herself that Christine Blasey Ford was confused and that Brett Kavanaugh would vote to uphold Roe was never going to get it right about Donald Trump, even before she announced her vote to acquit him. And certainly the Lisa Murkowski who was willing to vote against Kavanaugh was likely destined to capitulate when it came to impeachment. One could nevertheless wish for coherent constitutional arguments. Instead, there were vague and conclusory feelings.

Murkowski wants you to know that she is sad. We know she is sad because it is the word she used to describe that feeling she gets when the branch of government charged with checking the other branch of government wholly abdicates its responsibility to do so. And she emphatically wants you to know that Congress, which has failed to check the executive, is to blame for this failure: “This process has been the apotheosis of the problem of congressional abdication,” Murkowski said, in her transcendently incoherent floor speech on Monday evening, explaining her own abdication. “Through the refusal to exercise war powers, or relinquishing the power of the purse, selective oversight and unwillingness to check emergency declarations designed to skirt Congress—we have failed.” Having excoriated Congress for its failure to check the runaway executive branch, she then announced her vote to refuse to check the runaway executive branch. It was like a surgeon watching a patient bleed out on the table, while refusing to pick up a scalpel, while also blaming the concept of surgery.

Let the record also reflect that Murkowski fully and completely faults the president for conduct that is “shameful and wrong,” and is convinced that he has “degraded the office” and also, sadly—for to be clear she is very sad—she “cannot vote to convict.” Because, she argued, “the Constitution provides for impeachment but does not demand it in all instances.” So, Murkowski wants you to understand that since the Constitution does not force her to impeach, she cannot.

Most importantly, having removed this little fracas over Ukraine from the Court of Constitutional Democracy to the Court of Lisa Murkowski’s Feelings, the senator from Alaska also wants you to understand that her sadness is the fault of everybody—and by this she means quite literally everybody—but Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski was quick to name-check those who have failed to act appropriately in response to the president’s inappropriate behavior: First there was the House, which “rushed” the impeachment process through and which somehow “rotted” the “foundation” of the entire effort. Also, the House should have pursued censure, which, to be sure, would also have been rushed and partisan. Somehow, though, its failure to do the one thing somehow means that it had bungled the other. That made her sad.

But then after articulating that “the House failed in its responsibilities” it was time for the Senate to bear some of the blame. “The Senate should be ashamed by the rank partisanship that has been on display here,” Murkowski tutted, with sadness, faulting her fellow senators for initiating the impeachment trial with closed minds. Murkowski, to be sure, had earlier voted against allowing any evidence, presumably because there is a difference between having a closed mind before the trial and a closed mind during it. Her virtue lies in the fact that she opted to have a closed mind only after declining to hear any evidence. Murkowski also wanted you to know that both sides were to blame, specifically blaming the leader of the Democratic side, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for not immediately agreeing with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s terms of engagement that included the first-ever Senate impeachment trial with no witnesses and no documents. Had absolutely everyone capitulated in advance of the trial, there would have been more unity and less polarization, she implies.

The Senate, you see, was both the cause of—and also the victim of—Murkowski’s current sadness, which led her to take the path that she seems to concede is causing additional sadness among her colleagues. “So many in this chamber share my sadness for the present state of our institutions,” she intoned. “It’s my hope that we’ve finally found bottom here.”

Most important, however, to Lisa Murkowski, is that Lisa Murkowski is not to blame for this sad state of affairs. The press, however, is. It was, after all, “a careless media” that she said “cheerfully tried to put out the fires with gasoline” in covering impeachment, neglecting to mention that the press helped produce almost the only new factual evidence entered into the record at trial after Murkowski and her Senate colleagues voted to keep the truth from coming out.

Here’s the truly crazy bit: For Murkowski, it’s all down to the voters now: “The president’s name is on ballots that have already been cast,” she announced. “The voters will pronounce a verdict in nine months, and we must trust their judgment.” It is important not to “disenfranchise nearly 63 million Americans and remove him from the ballot,” she said. And yet she also wants you to understand that she believes the voters to be polarized jerks. In her view, fully half of the voters had been brainwashed (by the careless media? By polarized senators?) to “have just dismissed the case as soon as it reached” the Senate and the other half have behaved as if “the only way the trial could have been considered fair was if it resulted in the president’s removal from office.” Those are the people from which she voted to withhold any witnesses and evidence that might have enlightened them, and, oddly, they are also the only people she trusts to resolve this matter at the ballot box come November.

Susan Collins, who announced her vote to acquit on Tuesday, was only fractionally sillier, if less sad. She seized upon the claim that impeachment requires a crime-ish act, said that censure was a better option, and faulted the House for failing to subpoena John Bolton, after his attorney announced that he would fight such a subpoena in court. Collins, like Murkowski, conceded that Trump’s actions with regard to Ukraine were “improper” and said they “demonstrated very poor judgment.” On this one point she was clear: “It was wrong for President Trump to mention former Vice President Biden on that phone call, and it was wrong for him to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival,” Collins said. “This decision is not about whether you like or dislike this president or agree with or oppose his policies or approve or disapprove of his conduct in other circumstances. Rather it is about whether the charges meet the very high constitutional standard of treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors.”

Almost plausible. But then she blew it with her feelings. Because Collins, unlike Murkowski, who is sad, is going for sunny optimism. She promptly told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, “I believe that the president has learned from this case” and that he “will be much more cautious in the future.” Evincing no understanding whatsoever of President Donald J. Trump’s character, she insisted that she feels he will now behave lawfully: “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.” The president reportedly responded immediately to her statement by disputing that he had done anything wrong during an off-the-record press meeting before the State of the Union. Asked about Collins’ claim that he’d learned a lesson, Trump said absolutely not. “It was a perfect call.” Imagine, for a moment, that Collins, faced with actual evidence that the president had no actual remorse or regrets about his improper actions, had the actual power to change her mind, or her vote, or her statement. Don’t bother. There are, after all, those shady super PACs boosting her 2020 reelection bid to consider.

In the end, Senate Republicans who feign concern at the president’s “improper” solicitation of election help are actually vastly more chilling than those who named the whistleblower and threaten to open investigations into Hunter Biden. The latter are performing sociopathy, wholly divorced from any norm or constraint on both Senate behavior and fact. But the former are performing something that looks like norm-preserving moderation, and neutrality, and comity and both-sides pearl clutching, as they fritter away their actual power to check and constrain misconduct. This is not civility and it is not statesmanship; it is surrender, styled as sober leadership.