When Donald Trump was impeached the first time in 2019, Democrats—despite having spent months investigating and building a case—seemed like the ones on the defensive.
Not a single Republican voted to impeach President Trump, and the leadership team hadn’t had a particularly stressful whipping job in achieving that end. Two Democrats, meanwhile, voted against impeachment articles, while one switched jerseys and joined the Republican Party over the entire episode. Democrats were on edge over the optics. When some Democrats began to break out in cheers after the first article was adopted, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from the presiding chair, gave them a quick, dagger-like look telling them to shush. House Republicans murmured in jest the way a classroom might when a student is sent to the principal’s office. By the time the articles were adopted and prepared to be sent to the Senate graveyard, House Republicans felt that Democrats had made an unforced political mistake.
On Tuesday, however, all 222 Democrats voted to impeach the president a second time while Republicans suffered 10 defections. (Another four Republicans didn’t vote.) Those 10 defections for the snap impeachment may not seem like many, given the president’s behavior during the transition culminating in last week’s attack on the Capitol. But they are the most defections a president has ever lost from his own party on an impeachment vote. And considering the fear with which the president has controlled House Republicans over the last four years—a fear that draws its power from Republican primary voters, who still overwhelmingly adore Trump—those 10 votes, most of which will go over poorly at home, are a revelation.
Both the vote tally and the debate throughout the day showed a Republican Party that was on the defensive both morally and politically. To the extent there was a direct defense of the president from the president’s loyalists, it was that he didn’t say the exact words now go to the Capitol and kill cops! at his Jan. 6 White House rally. Others argued that the siege on the Capitol was already planned and in operation before the president spoke, so how could he be to blame for it?
So many of the objections, though, were procedural or whataboutist in nature. Democrats were rushing the process, they said, even though a lot of Democrats had wanted this done the night of the attack. There hadn’t been any hearings or evidence collected, they said, even though Capitol Hill custodians had been literally sweeping up evidence—broken shards of glass, dust from riot control agents—ever since. And why weren’t Democrats this het up over the summer during the riots and violence that broke out at George Floyd protests? Others took issue with the specific language in the articles, or worried that it set a low enough bar for “incitement” that many members of Congress would also be found guilty.
But few could manage to say with a straight face, as many of them managed to do during the Ukraine scandal, that Trump hadn’t done anything wrong. Even the boss of the caucus.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a typically unwavering Trump ally, said on the floor. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.”
That rare concession of presidential imperfection, along with a mid-debate statement from the president urging against violence—which the GOP’s debate floor manager, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, read aloud to the chamber—seemed like a move to stanch House Republicans’ bleeding. It is one thing to follow the party line when the issue at stake is mischievous shadow diplomacy in Ukraine, another when the president’s post-election strategy has gotten you barricaded inside the House chamber away from zip-tie-wielding lunatics trying to capture you.
That white-hot rage at being attacked over a fictitious presidential narrative was enough to create some of the first true moments of conscience for House Republicans in the Trump era, just under the wire.
You can try to overthink clever reasons for why House Conference Chair Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, was theoretically making a shrewd political move in voting for the president’s impeachment. But there isn’t really one. She may lose her position, her seat, and whatever higher political ambitions she has over her vote, and before all that, she has to figure out a way to get home safely. These votes didn’t make life easier for Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse, Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, or Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger. Okay, they do help Reps. David Valadao and John Katko, who are in biennially challenging general election matchups. But South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice, the biggest surprise of the day, who only a week ago voted to reject Joe Biden’s electors from Pennsylvania and Arizona, will now go home to his safe red district to face livid constituents.
“It has been a week since so many were injured, the United States Capitol was ransacked, and six people were killed, including two police officers,” Rice—whose “yea” vote many reporters and members assumed was a misvote when it first appeared on the board—said in his statement. “Yet the President has not addressed the nation to ask for calm. He has not visited the injured and grieving. He has not offered condolences. Yesterday in a press briefing at the border, he said his comments were ‘perfectly appropriate.’
“I have backed this President through thick and thin for four years,” Rice concluded. “I campaigned for him and voted for him twice. But this utter failure is inexcusable.”
Republicans were nowhere near an offensive position on Wednesday. While Democrats acted with a decisive swiftness and righteousness of purpose that they’ve rarely demonstrated, most Republicans were stuck either voting to excuse their sinking, lame-duck president who nearly had them killed, or breaking with him and returning home to constituents with a higher than average propensity for being involved in a militia. And now they have to walk through these fucking metal detectors, too.