Remember, They Felt This Was Their Best Option

Let’s work backwards from the necessary outcome of an impeachment trial that was always about political survival and never a search for the truth. To avoid their undoing, Senate Republicans had to find a way to make impeachment disappear without admitting Trump did anything wrong, preferably in time for him to take a victory lap at Tuesday’s State of the Union address. They faced two problems: trials take a long time and trials put facts and witnesses on display. The solution: do not hold a trial, just go through the motions of a trial as quickly as possible and claim exoneration. This should have been easy to do with Mitch McConnell in charge of Senate procedure. But McConnell faced two obstacles: overwhelming public support for hearing witnesses and overwhelming evidence that Trump is guilty as charged.

The political risks of a fast acquittal became evident early, when McConnell could not find the votes to dismiss the charges outright or keep the proceedings to a week by forcing the House to present its case in the middle of the night. But witnesses were another matter. First-hand testimony from John Bolton and Lev Parnas that Trump personally ordered and covered up a shakedown of Ukraine in exchange for fabricating political dirt on Joe Biden would compound the political cost of voting to acquit and threaten an uncontrollable expansion of the controversy that would have engulfed the vice president, acting chief of staff, secretary of state, secretary of energy, attorney general, a member of the president’s defense team, and at least one prominent Senate juror. McConnell knew he had to shut it all down to prevent this from happening, and the only option available to him was to make the Republican Party visible conspirators in the cover-up. 

It was a costly decision. Support for calling witnesses is so overwhelming that at one point it appeared Republicans would not be able to avoid giving John Bolton a platform to offer a preview of his upcoming book under oath. When McConnell convened his caucus midweek to say he did not have the votes to block witnesses, it was a play to remind them of the damage witnesses would do to the Republican Party and a plea to placate a Republican base for whom the survival of the Trump presidency is more important than seeking justice, respecting their constitutional oath, or upholding the wishes of three-quarters of the country. By week’s end, McConnell had regained control of his caucus. He permitted Maine’s Susan Collins, who is in a difficult re-election battle in a blue state,  the cover of supporting witnesses with the knowledge that only the quixotic Mitt Romney would join her, leaving the vote safely on the side of obstruction. But ongoing bombshell revelations from Bolton and Parnas made his see-no-evil posture an affront to anyone who was not on board with the ends justifying the means — which, as it turns out, is a lot of people. And a vote of such prominence on an issue this charged is not the sort of thing people will forget.

The high cost of their decision was evident in the pretzel-shaped justifications offered by Republican senators who know better. Lamar Alexander would have us believe that witnesses are unnecessary because the House managers already proved that Trump had extorted Ukraine for his political benefit, but “undermin[ing] the principle of equal justice under the law” is merely “inappropriate” and, you know, we can just have it out during the next election (which Trump was and is still undermining). It’s not like Trump had done something unforgivable, like lying about a sexual indiscretion. Then he called the impeachment process “shallow” and “hurried” as part of his justification for ending it prematurely. Marco Rubio went further, declaring the House proved its case, Trump is guilty, and the charges are impeachable — but “just because actions meet a standard of impeachment” doesn’t mean we should remove the president. He is, after all, a Republican. Lisa Murkowski reached for an institutional excuse, saying she was opposed to witnesses because there was no way the Senate could conduct a fair trial — as though she were not empowered to compel the witnesses and testimony that could shape how senators would ultimately vote. 

Arguments like these wouldn’t survive a freshman logic seminar and reveal that Senate Republicans know exactly what they are doing by covering up the trial rather than conducting it. They know they are endangering the republic by giving the incumbent license to criminally undermine the 2020 election as much as they know they will be the joint beneficiaries of his corruption. They also know they have given Democrats an easy way to dismiss next week’s acquittal as a meaningless sham, justification to continue investigations in the House that will reveal the details they tried to conceal in the Senate, and a winning message about corruption that indicts the entire Republican Party in a political process the broader public views as rigged.

This is a lot to concede. Republicans handed Democrats the Senate and the White House this week if they skillfully play the hand they were given. Even if recent history makes it a reasonable bet to assume they will not, the more profound calculation Republicans are making is that the political advantages they get from tilting the playing field are greater than the gift they have given Democrats through their thunderous embrace of public corruption. 

Donald Trump has long presided over a criminal operation, first in business and then in politics. When he completed his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, he gave all those remaining no choice but to act in his image. This past week provided us with the most dramatic illustration to date of what it looks like when a political party with no alternative path forward places the demands of a crime boss ahead of their commitment to the constitution. In shutting down the Senate trial, they made it unmistakably clear that Donald Trump owns the Republican Party. It is now up to Democrats to make sure that in November the Republican Party owns Donald Trump.