Senate GOP Starts Assembling Impeachment Phalanx

Senate GOP Starts Assembling Impeachment Phalanx
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Senate GOP Starts Assembling Impeachment Phalanx
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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When President Clinton was impeached over sex-related perjury and obstruction of justice charges by the Republican-controlled House in 1998, the Senate Democratic majority, joined by a handful of Republicans, ultimately protected him from being forced out of office.  

With House Democrats’ impeachment floodgates now open and lawmakers rushing to back their leaders’ call to investigate, Senate Republicans will likely serve as President Trump’s impeachment backstop, the only obstacle impeding Democrats’ drive to force him from the White House.

House Democrats this week swiftly moved forward with an impeachment inquiry over a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president in which they allege that Trump threatened to withhold $400 million in military assistance if the newly elected leader didn’t look into corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.  

Despite nearly three years of on-again, off-again friction between Trump and his Senate GOP brethren, so far Senate Republicans are starting to assemble what looks like a formidable phalanx guarding against his ouster.

Republican senators’ reactions to the release of a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Volodymyr Zelensky ran the gamut Wednesday from complete dismissal of the Democratic allegations and their march to impeachment, to those who expressed grave problems with Trump’s words on the call and others who declined to discuss the pressing impeachment issue at all.

But so far, no Republican has come forward to argue that the contents of the call constitute the “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” the impeachment provision in the Constitution says must be alleged for lawmakers to begin proceedings against a president.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, Wednesday said the transcript does not show anything that would convince him to convict Trump if the House impeaches him.

“Here’s what I think of the transcript: If you impeach somebody over this phone call, God help the next president,” he told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “[There was] no suggestion that ‘if you don’t do what I want to with Biden, we’re going to cut your aid off,’” he added. “…I’m glad the aid [to Ukraine] started flowing so there is no quid pro quo. I feel good about this.”

Graham, once a harsh Trump critic who has become a consistent ally over the last few years, also turned the tables and said he agreed with the president that Biden and his son Hunter and their overlapping roles in Ukraine deserve to be investigated.

Though Graham acknowledged that he considers Biden a “dear friend,” he’s called the Ukrainian questions surrounding the father and his son’s business dealings an “awkward situation” that deserves thorough scrutiny.

In fact, Graham called for an independent counsel to do so, arguing that he would decline to take up an investigation himself and that it should be conducted by a trusted, non-partisan entity instead.

Ron Johnson, another senator who usually defends Trump, also brushed aside Democrats’ suggestion that the president’s request that Zelensky “do us a favor” and investigate corruption allegations against the Bidens amounts to an impeachable offense.

“I think the House is so far over their skis on this thing,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “When the American people take a look at that entire conversation, [they’ll discover] he sounds like a pretty gracious guy.”

Johnson was one of a dozen House and Senate GOP lawmakers who attended an early morning meeting at the White House where they huddled with White House counsel Pat Cipollone and discussed the rough transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call before it was publicly released.

Trump called into the meeting from New York, where he is attending the United Nations General Assembly summit, and talked to the lawmakers.

Only one Republican, Sen. Mitch Romney, the party’s nominee for president in 2012, expressed strong concerns after reading the transcript. Earlier this week he deemed the allegations about the Trump-Zelensky conversation “deeply troubling.” For the most part, Romney avoided weighing in extensively Wednesday, but did tell reporters that “it remains troubling in the extreme. It’s deeply troubling.”

Other Republicans haltingly responded to reporters’ questions Wednesday, obviously uncomfortable that Trump had asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden, a potential 2020 opponent.

Sen. John Thune, the Senate majority whip, said Dems “hyped” the phone call so much that its contents are less alarming than many in the public may have thought. Still, he said, if he were president, he would have avoided the Biden matter during a phone call with another country’s leader. Still, he said, that doesn’t mean what Trump said rises to an impeachable offense.

“It will probably get tried in the court of public opinion, and I think that a lot of people are going to take a look at it and say that’s Trump being Trump,” Thune told reporters. “Trump’s got a different style when it comes to being president.”

Ultimately, he said, “if this is all there is, it’s pretty thin gruel to start proceeding down the track that [Democrats] are proceeding. And for somebody who has experienced [impeachment] in the House, I think it has the potential to backfire on them.”

“No,” said Sen. John Cornyn when asked if he wanted to weigh in on the contents of Trump’s call.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, sidestepped reporters’ questions, saying he had yet to thoroughly read the rough transcript, hours after it was released.

One Republican facing a tough re-election fight tried to avoid taking a stand before the House has a chance to investigate.

Sen. Susan Collins, the last standing GOP federal lawmaker in New England, said only that the call “raises issues” and she “looks forward” to Thursday’s congressional hearings, which will feature testimony on the topic from the Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and the intelligence community’s inspector general.

“I should make clear that if there are articles of impeachment, I would be a juror, just as I was in the trial for President Clinton,” she told reporters. “As a juror, I think it’s inappropriate for me to reach conclusions about evidence or to comment on the proceedings in the House.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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