Four months ago, during the same interview in which he admitted he’d once again accept dirt on his political opponents from foreign governments, President Trump also said, “Article II [of the Constitution] allows me to do whatever I want.”
Trump was referring specifically to the idea that he could have fired Special Counsel Robert Mueller at any point, but “whatever I want” means “whatever I want,” and he has repeated this false assertion of dictatorial power over and over again.
The impeachment process underway in the House will ultimately force Republican senators to attest to whether they believe this is right—whether it’s the GOP’s view that Republican politicians can lie, cheat, and steal to stay in power, and there is nothing the majority of voters who oppose their rule can do about it. Anything short of a vote to convict Trump—or a commitment to depose him in all but name—will constitute an endorsement of the view that America must be a right-wing autocracy. It may also condemn us to being one.
Trump’s claims to power are total and unambiguous, but they are not just the ravings of an ignorant megalomaniac. To the contrary, the Republican apparatus has thrown considerable weight and resources behind the view that Trump can only be unseated in an election that he and only he is allowed to rig.
Consider the implications of Trump’s efforts to resist accountability.
It is the long-standing if widely contested view of the Justice Department that a sitting president can not be indicted while in office, but Trump’s lawyers have argued that in federal court that the president can not even be investigated. Trump claims the power, as he did in his June interview, to shut down any federal investigation of himself that he wants. His Justice Department has intervened in multiple lawsuits to prevent Congress from obtaining the documents and testimony they might need to determine whether he should be impeached, and now, Trump says, impeachment amounts to a coup. That math is clear: Trump can violate election law with impunity—as he has in both the campaigns he’s run—and shouldn’t be investigated, mustn’t be indicted, and can’t legitimately be impeached for it.
Republican senators can not, therefore, simply acquit Trump and pass the buck to voters to sort out the future of the country, because an unqualified acquittal will empower Trump to resume his efforts, whether with Ukraine or China or other foreign governments, to deny those voters a free and fair election.
At the moment, less than a handful of Republican senators have even allowed that Trump might’ve done something wrong, let alone that the conduct at issue embodies the reason impeachment power exists in the first place. If that is how they ultimately dispose of the articles of impeachment, their years of aiding and abetting Trump, helping him cover up his crimes, plunging their heads into the sand, and otherwise making themselves complicit in his bad deeds will give way to active participation in his ongoing betrayal of the country.
For three years, Republicans have managed to escape proper condemnation for their decisions by alluding (in private, of course, and only on background) to the difficult incentives they face. Trump has established himself as the cult leader of their party’s base, after all, and they will be driven out of their jobs if they oppose him. As long as he’s nominating right wing judges, what choice do they have? The fact that impeachment will force these Republicans to vote on whether to drive him out of power means they will no longer enjoy anonymity to excuse their actions, and will, for the first time, have to render a collective judgment as senators on his fitness for office. Just about every Republican who’s been more than mildly critical of Trump has found themselves adrift and alone, but until now they all chose to act individually; soon they will have to act together.
Trump can not be removed unless at least 20 Republicans vote to convict him. Under even the most favorable circumstances it’s hard to imagine getting to 20 without the dam bursting and the number rising much higher. Former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) recently asserted that in a private ballot, 35 Republican senators would vote to remove Trump, but there is no secret voting in the Senate. There are Republican senators, like Susan Collins, who may feel like their jobs depend on voting to convict him; there are also a few senators, like Mitt Romney, who have the liberty to vote how they’d like and may even have enough conscience left to vote the right way. Beyond them, there are a handful of senators who have their eyes on the presidency, and may see Trump’s ejection from office as a means of shortening their paths to the White House. Together, they do not number 20, and unless they were to combine forces and persuade others, their insufficient numbers would probably dwindle.
Republicans could theoretically still protect the country from Trump without ejecting him from office, but only by acknowledging that his conduct makes him unfit to serve, checking him relentlessly, and helping to defeat him at the polls.
Unless Republicans were to play an active role in protecting democracy in the aftermath of Trump’s acquittal, they would be reprising the roles they played in the aftermath of the Access Hollywood tape, when they pretended to break ranks while working diligently until election day to defeat his opponent. Doing the right thing without removing Trump from office would entail using Congress’s broad powers to prevent him from committing further crimes while engineering his defeat by aggressively opposing his re-election.
The path of least resistance lies well short of that. Many Republicans will be tempted to justify acquitting him by pointing to the proximity of the election, but that would be the most thinly veiled kind of abdication. Who would then stop Trump from engineering further foreign interference in the election? Who would communicate to voters of all parties that Trump had sought to rob them of their right to self-govern?
The answer is no one, and that’s the point: Acquitting Trump with a furrowed brow and nothing else would be irrefutable confirmation that Republicans actually do not oppose these tactics as instruments of perpetual Republican minority-rule.
And what is more likely: that Republicans have been waiting patiently for an opportunity to oppose Trump in an organized way? Or that the party of gerrymandering and voter suppression and the rigging of the judiciary also thinks Trump’s arguments about Republican impunity are correct, or at least not worth standing against? Over the course of several years, Republicans have shown no indication that there’s a limit to the depravity they’ll tolerate to protect Trump and cling to power. Impeachment may simply be the means of forcing them to admit that their tolerance is limitless, and that, as far as they’re concerned, he can do whatever he wants.