The brisk and successful drive to a second impeachment of Donald Trump and his ebbing power in Washington have raised some hopes that this time around the U.S. Senate might actually convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors and bar him from future office (since the calendar will take care of removing him from the one he occupies now). Predictions that this could happen appear to be based largely on the relatively low level of Senate Republican support for Trump’s electoral-vote protests on January 6, and a surge of questionably sourced claims that Mitch McConnell might actually support conviction.
It’s worth taking a closer look at how many Republican senators might reasonably be expected to throw Trump into the dustbin of history. Seventeen GOP senators would have to break ranks to convict him on the “incitement to insurrection” impeachment article, assuming Democrats stick together (and that’s not certain given Joe Manchin’s comments suggesting that it’s unnecessary and an obstacle to future bipartisanship). After conviction, only a simple majority would be needed to prohibit Trump from holding future office. Who might these Republican defectors be, in theory?
Chronic Anti-Trump Republicans
Mitt Romney, who voted to convict and remove Trump from office in February 2020, can be expected to do the same the second time around. Another regularly anti-Trump Republican, Ben Sasse, might go along with the more concrete “incitement to insurrection” accusation this time around. You could probably place Pat Toomey, an outspoken opponent of Trump’s election-coup efforts, in the same category as Sasse; he’s also announced he’s retiring at the end of his term in 2022. Other Republican senators prone to rebellion now and then are Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, against whom Trump has pledged to campaign in 2022, and Maine’s Susan Collins, the one Republican senator reelected in a state carried by Joe Biden in November. That’s five senators, though none of them is a lead-pipe certainty for conviction.
Senators Leaving Office or Fighting for Reelection in 2022
One theory of the case is that Republicans who have nothing to lose because they are lame ducks might defect at the end of an impeachment trial — as might senators in tough 2022 reelection contests. Aside from Toomey, the one Republican senator who is definitely headed for the exit in 2022 is North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who said on January 6 that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol, and has reportedly expressed contempt toward the 45th president in private. So you can put him down as a possible if still unlikely (Burr is hardly a boat-rocker) conviction supporter.
Another possibility is Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who will turn 89 in 2022 when his current term ends, and who has said Trump has forfeited any opportunity for future leadership of the GOP. On the other hand, the fitness fanatic Grassley could well run again in 2022, when offending Trump supporters could be precisely the kind of thing that might attract a primary challenge to an otherwise unassailable veteran. And his suggestion that Trump has already disqualified himself from a 2024 comeback could ironically help Grassley argue that making it official is unnecessary.
There’s not a lot of fodder for conviction among the 16 other Republicans likely to run for reelection in 2022 (excluding the aforementioned Murkowski). Only one, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, is in a state carried by Joe Biden, and he’s been one of the most hard-core supporters of Trump and his election-fraud claims. Most are in deep-red states where their major political concern would be a primary challenge.
2024 Presidential Aspirants
The Republican senators who would have the most to gain from Trump being sidelined in 2024 are those who have aspirations to succeed him as the GOP presidential nominee: Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Marco Rubio, just to name the most obvious presidential wannabes. But without question, the political calculation for any of them would begin with a hope that they could inherit some or all of Trump’s fervent supporters, and any real chance of the 2024 nomination might end with being labeled an enemy of MAGA. So while these worthies might hope Trump is convicted, they will not want their fingerprints on the weapon that denied Republicans the opportunity to seek vengeance and vindication for him.
If there is a possibility of a 2024 aspirant trying to stand out by taking on Trump and his legacy, it could be Cotton, the most outspoken dissenter toward Trump’s attempted election coup in the group, or possibly the supremely opportunistic Graham, who might stop sucking up to the former president after he leaves office. But the safer course for all of them is to find some excuse for voting no at the end of a Senate trial, with or without public expressions of solidarity for Trump. Cotton has already issued a statement opposing a postpresidential trial as unconstitutional.
Two Republican senators, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, style themselves as more loyal to the Constitution than to any party or politician, and both have occasionally given Trump problems (while generally currying his favor). But for that very reason, they will likely be convinced by conservative constitutional scholars, like Michael Luttig, who argue that any textual analysis of the Constitution prohibits an impeachment proceeding against a former president (an argument already endorsed by Tom Cotton). And in general, that will be a convenient excuse for a no vote across the ranks of Senate Republicans.
The McConnell Factor
Mitch McConnell is notorious for valuing doubt about his intentions, so all the blind quotes from those said to be familiar with his thinking on an impeachment trial should be accordingly discounted. His own statement that he is “open” to a conviction is indeed different from his public admissions before the first impeachment trial that he was closely coordinating with the White House on a defense for the president. But it’s still literally and figuratively an expression of the formal neutrality customary for all senators before an impeachment trial, not a veiled signal that he’s going to send Trump to political hell. The two things we know for sure about McConnell is that he’s not going to go against a majority of his conference on anything important and that he’s already ensured, by refusing to reconvene the Senate until January 19, a trial managed by Chuck Schumer.
With Joe Biden taking office and testing Republican unity early and often, you have to assume McConnell isn’t going to divide his troops or lead them into a massive intraparty fight. Maybe he’ll give the signal that further defections are all right if a majority of Republican senators are onboard for convicting Trump, but he probably won’t do a single thing to make that happen. So if the pro-conviction band remains limited to five or eight or ten Republican senators, don’t count on Mitch to flip the board.
Why Most GOP Senators Are Likely to Oppose Conviction
Despite strong bipartisan elite fury and dismay over Trump’s conduct leading up to and during the January 6 crisis, “the base” hasn’t abandoned him in any significant way. Yes, he’s losing some support across the board, but not enough to embolden Republican rebels. A new Axios-Ipsos survey dramatically shows the current public opinion dynamics: A majority of Americans now favor removing Trump from office, but “a majority of Republicans still think Trump was right to challenge his election loss, support him, don’t blame him for the Capitol mob and want him to be the Republican nominee in 2024.” Among the more than one-third of Republicans who appear to identify with Trump more than with their party, support for Trump 2024 — which of course conviction in the Senate would make impossible — is at an astronomical 92 percent.
Republican senators will be reluctant to fight that sentiment, particularly since there are so many ways they could vote against convicting Trump without condoning his conduct. As his presidency quickly recedes into the background, Senate sentiment for formally burying him may recede as well.
But the most powerful excuse for doing nothing will be the plea (ironic as it might be coming from Trump-era Republicans) we heard so often during the impeachment debate in the House: that the country needs healing as it moves from the Trump presidency to Biden’s. It’s an argument that was clearly not available during the first impeachment trial, which occurred on the brink of the most intensely combative presidential election in living memory. Implicit in a let’s-move-on posture is the belief (stated or unstated) that Trump’s grip on the GOP will fade quickly as his proximity to the power he has lost — and to the social-media platforms he has been denied — grows more distant. Senate Republicans may accept his fall from grace, but don’t count on them to give him a push.