“A Trump confidante tells CBS News,” the network reported Friday, “that Republicans senators have been warned, ‘vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.’” That night, Adam Schiff quoted the report in his closing oration arguing for President Trump’s removal from office. At that point, all hell promptly broke loose. At least one Republican senator shouted out that it wasn’t true, and several registered bitter complaints afterward.
“That’s where he lost me,” said Lisa Murkowski. “Whatever gains he may have made, he lost all of it — plus some — tonight,” added John Barrasso. James Lankford shared his dismay in the most fulsome terms. “I was visibly upset with it,” he said, oddly describing his internal feelings from the perspective of someone looking at himself from the outside. “The whole room was visibly upset on our side … that’s insulting and demeaning to everyone to say that we somehow live in fear and that the president has threatened all of us.”
It is obviously impossible to gauge the sincerity of a person’s umbrage-taking. The senatorial ego is notoriously fragile, and it is at least possible that Schiff actually did change some votes in that moment. If that is actually true, however, it would be an extraordinarily damning confession for the Republican senators.
To begin with, the facts of the case provably lie on Schiff’s side. He simply quoted a credible news report. All Schiff said was that CBS reported the quote. Did CBS report the quote? Yes — it’s right there on video. Was CBS’ report accurate? Schiff of course can’t vouch for the authenticity of every media report, and he did quickly add, “I don’t know if that’s true.” Republicans senators certainly have no way of knowing the quote is false. CBS’ source did not say every Republican senator was warned their heads would be on a pike. He merely said “Republican senators,” which would mean more than one of them, but not necessarily all of them. Maybe nobody delivered this warning to Susan Collins, but Collins has no way of knowing it was not conveyed to any of her colleagues.
It is certainly not as if the line Schiff quoted pushed the known contours of Trumpian behavior. This is an administration that delights in bullying Republicans and intimidating internal dissent. Trump has openly driven Republicans who criticize his behavior, like Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and Justin Amash, out of the party, boasting that he has ended their careers.
What’s more, the broader notion that Republicans senators are simply afraid to admit Trump acted inappropriately in the Ukraine scandal is widely understood within the party. Even the stalwart Trump defender Brit Hume conceded this month that most Republicans already believe Trump is lying about Ukraine, even if they won’t say so. Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg notes that a huge number of Republicans privately believe Trump pressured Ukraine to smear his rivals, but that the offense simply does not rise to the level of justifying removal. “[M]any of the lawyers and pundits who carry water for the president in public will concede in private that what Trump did was wrong — either legally, constitutionally, politically, or all three,” he reports, “I can’t tell you how many Republican senators and congressmen I’ve talked to — away from a microphone or television camera — who will concede this basic point, even if they have a wide array of views on the wisdom of impeaching the president or the way the impeachment process worked.”
Schiff’s broader point — that many if not most Republican officeholders know Trump did something wrong, but are afraid to say so out of fear of retribution — is broadly understood within the party.
Of course it is possible sometimes to make a banal point in an offensive fashion. But if you watch that segment of Schiff’s speech, he bent over backward to frame it in the most flattering way. “What I said in this chamber last night didn’t require courage,” he said, “My views, heartfelt as they are, reflect the views of my constituents.” The purpose of the “head on a pike” anecdote was to highlight the bravery of the Republicans whose votes he was seeking. If anything, Schiff’s metaphor gave them too much credit. Throughout history, many people have risked actual decapitation, or something equally ghastly, for speaking out against a leader. He is not asking anything nearly so brave. The “punishment” they risk by defying Trump is … to lose office and probably become a wealthy lobbyist.
It is striking how much Republicans have made of supposed violations of decorum in this trial. They likewise complained so bitterly about a statement on the first day, by Jerry Nadler, implicating Republicans in a cover-up that presiding justice John Roberts delivered an official rebuke. Roberts has not made any such rebuke of the senators who have violated rules requiring their silent attendance throughout the trial. Susan Collins herself broke the rules by exclaiming her disagreement at Schiff. They have demanded strict enforcement of the unwritten (and often inscrutable) rules of senatorial decorum even as they have openly flouted the written rules.
But assume all of the above is wrong. Assume Schiff lied, or gave offense through some invisible breach of protocol. What would it say if Republican senators vote to acquit Trump, or perhaps vote to exclude evidence, because of their wounded feelings?
The obvious ethical imperative of senators in this case is to judge the case based on the facts. But suppose they were to go outside the four corners of the evidence before them, and let their votes be affected by surrounding rhetorical excess. They maintain that the person whose rhetoric is so egregious that it can’t be ignored is … Adam Schiff? Not the man who calls for imprisoning his political opponents, who mocks their bodily appearance, who goads supporters to violence, and demands revenge against the media? It is Schiff, quoting a media report, that has roused them to such indignation that they cannot judge the case fairly?
How convenient for the Republicans, that being accused implicitly of violating their conscience for political expediency should be the very thing that gives them license to violate their conscience for political expediency. It is as if stating the accusation grants them permission to fulfill it.