In a development whose timing, but not its outcome, was a surprise, all but five Republican senators have voted to dismiss as unconstitutional the article of impeachment against Donald Trump that was passed by the House on January 13. The Senate trial is scheduled to begin in two weeks.
Rand Paul raised a point of order before he and his colleagues were sworn in for the trial, contending it is unconstitutional to impeach and try a president who has already left office (a position that some, but by no means all, constitutional experts share). It’s a claim that is extremely convenient for Republicans, particularly those who don’t want to defend Trump’s conduct in inciting the Capitol riot that led to his impeachment but also don’t want to hold him accountable for it. Apparently, many of them were blind-sided by Paul’s move, according to The Hill:
Several GOP senators said heading into the vote that they hadn’t made a decision on how they would vote, hadn’t talked to Paul or, until they saw Tuesday’s Senate floor schedule, didn’t know he would force the vote.
“I will admit to you I did not think we’d be having a vote on this at this point in time,” [Lisa] Murkowski said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) added, “until I read my notice from the leader this morning I didn’t know there was a chance it was going to happen.
And in the event, only five Republicans joined the 50 Democrats to defeat Paul’s motion: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey.
Despite much breathless media speculation that Mitch McConnell might somehow lead enough Republican senators into the “guilty” camp to secure Trump’s conviction at the end of the trial, the newly demoted minority leader stuck with the overwhelming majority of his conference in supporting what was the constitutional equivalent of a “motion to dismiss.” Voting for Paul’s motion doesn’t necessarily mean voting against a conviction (it’s possible to vote “guilty” on the charge while disputing the penalty), but it’s very clear that Trump will be acquitted unless something astonishing is revealed during the trial. Even then, getting to 17 Republican votes for conviction when only five GOP senators consider the proceedings legitimate is about as likely as Bernie Sanders voting “not guilty.” Indeed, it’s more logical that some senators voting to affirm the trial’s constitutionality may yet decide against conviction.
The trial will go on as planned, but don’t be surprised if it’s abbreviated with the outcome so little in doubt and Democrats anxious to get on with the work of the Biden administration. Soon the big debate about Republicans and Trump’s second impeachment will focus mostly on the retribution meted out by Trump supporters to the ten House members and (at most) five senators who broke ranks to bring the rogue ex-president to justice. I’m sure Toomey is happy to be retiring at the end of his current term.