In September, former Arizona senator Jeff Flake said of the President Trump’s impeachment inquiry that if the Senate held a private vote, at least 35 Republican senators would vote to remove Trump from office. Most observers derided Flake’s assertion as NeverTrump nonsense, but the idea of it made me recall the state of Capitol Hill during Trump’s initial campaign for president.
Early in his campaign, Trump effectively had zero endorsements from major elected Republicans. His off-color, reckless, and obnoxious style didn’t sit well with the prim and proper WASPs that made up the Republican establishment. As Trump climbed in the polls, there were still zero major endorsements. It wasn’t until late February of 2016, when he had racked up primary wins in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, that he received a major endorsement from former opponent Chris Christie. It was revealed months later that Christie had been tempted with the possibility of being named as Vice President or Attorney General. A couple of days later, Senator Jeff Sessions also endorsed Trump. He too was tempted by the Attorney General job, an appointment he later received. Trump went on to accept a long string of endorsements from major Republicans during the general election season, many of them with a quid pro quo attached like with Christie and Sessions.
The reason why this is important is because it shows that Republican politicians had zero interest in Trump until he proved himself to be a major electoral force. Even when he was the clear frontrunner in the polls, Republicans didn’t buy his apparent strength until the first votes were cast. It then became clear to them that Trump’s massive popularity with the party’s base meant that their own job prospects were tied to his success.
These motivations were exposed when the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released and the Republican Party was plunged into chaos. Trump, the party’s standard-bearer, had effectively been de-endorsed by House Speaker Paul Ryan as well as former presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The party became a free-for-all, and without any direction from party leaders, Republicans were forced to decide for themselves how far their support for Trump would go. Politico’s Tim Alberta wrote perhaps the best account of how Republican leaders reacted in the immediate aftermath of the tape’s release, which can be read here.
The Access Hollywood tape split Congressional Republicans into three camps. There was the morally pure camp, which dropped all support of Trump and demanded that he be replaced on the ticket. There was the ride-or-die camp, which was fully on the Trump train for better or worse. And then, perhaps most annoyingly, there were the fence sitters who spinelessly refused to take a position or pretended it wasn’t happening. These were the people who would normally deflect a question about it by talking about how interested they were in solving the problems going on in their own districts.
The reason why I bring up the fallout from the Access Hollywood tape is that it is the closest thing we’ve seen to what the impeachment process is going to look like. The Access Hollywood tape was the rare example of hard evidence against Trump that could not be simply dismissed as fake news. It was impossible to deny that Trump was the one who said the vulgar things on that tape. The Ukraine scandal, likewise, is based on a phone call that it is impossible to deny took place.
The exact same Republican camps that emerged after the tape are going to reappear during the impeachment proceedings. There will be the small group that admits that President Trump committed an impeachable offense by threatening to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless he received damaging information about his political opponent. There will also be the very large and vocal group that asserts the entire thing is a partisan witch-hunt. And finally, there will be those representing purple states or swing districts who try to stay out of it until the very last minute when it’s time to vote.
These will be the camps that the public sees. But there’s another camp that we can’t really see. It’s the one that the majority of Congressional Republicans are in. The one full of people who never stopped hating Trump’s guts from the day he came down that escalator four years ago. These are the conservatives who cut their teeth in the Reagan-Bush era of politics and never looked twice at the right-wing populism that Trump represents. They came on board when Trump had serious momentum, but never warmed to him the way that they pretended to. They never had any real reason to.
Your representatives probably didn’t grow up in a former coal town. They likely didn’t lose their jobs in a steel mill, or watch friends and family succumb to opioid abuse. Trump never represented a beacon of hope to them the way he did for everyday Americans because, truthfully, politicians have never needed one. No matter how folksy they try to appear, they’re almost always wealthier, better educated, and less grounded than the people they represent.
Therefore, I believe Jeff Flake spoke truthfully. In a closed-door vote, at least 35 GOP senators would vote to convict. Their inner-conservatives are tantalized by the prospect of waving a magic wand to make Mike Pence president, but their survivalist nature precludes that possibility. So long as Trump represents the best electoral path forward for Republicans, impeachment is a pipe dream.
However, when you hear your representatives speaking loudly and often about how much they love the president, remember the lessons from the 2016 campaign. They don’t love him, and they never will. They’re lying through their teeth and they’re doing it because they’re afraid of you.