When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced last week that he'd oppose including witness testimony in Donald Trump's impeachment trial, his decision wasn't too surprising -- but his rationale was unexpected.
The Tennessee Republican, who will end his lengthy career in public service later this year, said that the president's guilt "has already been proven," acknowledged that Trump's actions were "inappropriate," and conceded that the House impeachment managers successfully proved their case.
He just didn't much care. As we discussed, Alexander read the call summary, heard the arguments, weighed the evidence, and concluded that Trump was guilty -- of an offense that isn't especially important. It's why, in the senator's mind, there's no need for any kind of accountability, or even additional scrutiny. If senators didn't have all of the available information, and they decided the president's fate based on an incomplete record, so be it.
After months in which GOP lawmakers tried to pretend Trump was innocent, Alexander's line was quickly embraced by many of his colleagues. As the New York Times reported:
As the Senate marched toward the final phase of President Trump's impeachment trial, a handful of Republicans coalesced around a common position: Mr. Trump did what he was accused of -- pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival -- but should not be removed for it.Mr. Trump has repeatedly insisted that he did nothing wrong with regard to Ukraine, calling his telephone call with the country's president "perfect" and insisting that the impeachment inquiry was a "hoax." But even as they were poised to acquit him, several Republican senators were rejecting that assertion, saying his actions were wrong and inappropriate -- just not grounds for the Senate to oust him.
By yesterday, this Trump's-guilty-but-we-don't-care contingent had grown to a size that would've been hard to predict when the impeachment trial first began a few weeks ago -- when the principal Republican line was that the charges against the president were baseless.
After Alexander's statement, for example, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also rejected the White House's line and said the president's actions were "wrong and inappropriate." He, too, nevertheless concluded that Trump's misdeeds weren't serious enough to warrant a conviction.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) issued a rather evasive statement that avoided firm conclusions, though he nevertheless said, "Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office."
Around the same time, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) added, "I've said from the beginning that it was not a perfect phone call and there are elements that were not appropriate. ... It doesn't rise to the level of impeachment."
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) used cautious language yesterday on CNN, but she nevertheless told Jake Tapper the president pursued his goals "maybe in the wrong manner." The Iowan added that Trump's actions were "not what I have done," and that his infamous July 25 phone meeting was "maybe not the perfect call." Ernst added, however, that she's sticking with her party anyway.
This wasn't quite where we were supposed to end up. Trump stands accused of abusing the powers of his office, illegally withholding aid to a vulnerable ally, trying to extort a foreign country into helping him cheat in an American election, trying to cover it up, and getting caught. It's against this backdrop that the political dispute seemed to fall relatively neatly into two camps: those who demanded accountability for a presidential abuse on a historic scale, and those who argued that Trump did not do what all of the evidence showed him doing.
But there was a Door #3 and behind it sat something we probably should've seen coming: Republican indifference.
It's refreshing, to a degree, that so many GOP lawmakers are willing to concede that Trump's nonsensical "hoax" talking point, repeated obsessively despite its transparent absurdity, is simply too ridiculous to endorse.
And yet, much of the party, which likes to present itself to voters as champions of "law and order" and the "rule of law," has decided that the president did the crime, but he need not do the time.
Update: It looks like we can add Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to the list of GOP senators who agree that Trump's actions were wrong.