One Soft Cheer for a Few Senate Republicans

Jonathan Bernstein

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After two days of the Senate impeachment trial, it’s time for one cheer for that much-maligned group, Senate Republicans who are not always knee-jerk defenders of President Donald Trump.

Only one cheer. The trial leaves much to be desired. The request for witnesses and documents made by the impeachment managers from the House of Representatives should be a no-brainer, not something to maybe possibly be granted down the road. 

And yet when the Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported that Republicans were looking to Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee as a key figure on the question of whether there would be enough votes to allow witnesses to be called, I noticed that the reactions on Twitter were united in assuming that Alexander would ultimately do whatever Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted.

I have plenty of criticisms of Alexander and other supposed defenders of the Senate. They have allowed Trump to treat Congress with contempt. They’ve approved clearly unqualified nominees. They’ve failed to use their leverage to push Trump to give up his lawless ways. 

But I’ve watched two days of the impeachment trial so far and I’m sure of one thing: It’s not what Trump wanted. It’s almost certainly not what McConnell wanted. 

In fact, it’s not what I and some others feared — a full-on show trial focused on smearing former Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and any other Democrat whom Trump wants to target. There’s been a bit of that, and I’m sure there will be more. It’s what the president’s lawyers want to do with their time. But if those who believe that all Republicans will ruthlessly exploit every opportunity by taking maximum advantage of their partisan power were correct, we would never have had hours and hours of Democratic House managers speaking on the Senate floor, and to the TV cameras, about Trump’s malfeasance. 

Indeed, if it was up to McConnell, I think the only question would be whether he would have dismissed the trial on Day One — or worse. The reporting on McConnell, and just everything we know about him, suggests that the only reason he didn’t just throw the whole thing out is that four or more Republicans insisted on something that at least looked like a fair trial. And that’s given House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff and the rest of his House manager team a chance to make their case to the nation, whether Republican senators are listening or not.

I don’t want to oversell this: The appearance of a marginally fair trial is a pretty minimal thing to grant, especially if eventually the House’s request for subpoenas is denied. Republicans haven’t pushed back against restrictions on the media. They haven’t stopped McConnell’s express-train scheduling, although they did slow it a bit. And of course, there’s still nothing close to a guarantee of calling witnesses and securing other evidence. So at this point I’m only giving one cheer for whichever Republicans stood up to McConnell (and Trump). But it’s not nothing.

1. Julie Novkov at A House Divided on the history of U.S. impeachments beyond the presidency.

2. Lori Poloni-Staudinger and J. Cherie Strachan on women running for president.

3. Nate Silver on what the polls are saying after the Jan. 14 Democratic debate.

4. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux on Elizabeth Warren and electability. 

5. Nate Cohn on how things look for Bernie Sanders.

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on housing.

7. And Ronald A. Klain and Nicole Lurie on what the U.S. should be doing to lower the risk of infectious-disease epidemics.

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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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