Of all the impeachment speculation and far-out statements made over the past week, the most quizzical may be this: former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s assertion that “at least 35” Republican senators who would like to oust President Trump.
Flake’s claim comes with an important qualifier: the only way the Senate would vote to impeach Trump would have to be via a secret ballot.
I don’t know the validity of Flake’s claim – he’s worked in the chamber and I’m haven’t.
Nor am I privy to what goes on in the minds of Republican senators – or what they say to each other when the caucus gathers. Perhaps there is indeed considerably more Trump antipathy than what’s publicly displayed.
But this much I do know: impeachment votes aren’t done anonymously.
And, if the Clinton impeachment saga is any indicator, those 35 GOP senators aren’t going to turn on a sitting president of the same party.
Let’s take a look back at February 1999 and the two Senate impeachment votes (in December 1998, the House voted on four impeachment articles, two of which – perjury and obstruction of justice – advanced to the Senate).
The Senate balance, coming off Bill Clinton’s second midterm referendum, was 55-45 in favor of Republicans (it was an odd election year in that: (a) it was the last time Senate elections failed to change the chamber’s balance of power; (b) with Democrats picking up five House seats, it marked the first time since 1934 that the out-of-power party failed to pick up congressional seats; and (c) it was the first time since 1822 that the loyal opposition failed to gain seats in the sixth year of a presidency).
In order to convict Clinton, Senate Republicans needed 12 Democrats to break ranks. What happened: not a one of the 45 Democratic senators cast a guilty vote on either article (the perjury article failed, 55-45; five Republicans senators crossed over to help defeat the obstruction article, 50-50).
Keep in mind: it could have been very convenient for some Senate Democrats to turn on Bill Clinton. He was a lame-duck president, nor was he a Senate alum. Besides, elevating Al Gore (a former senator) to the presidency quite possibly would have made him a stronger candidate the following year (with a better job-title and a bigger airplane, maybe Gore gets a few extra thousand votes in Florida).
Moreover, back in 1999, 13 of the 45 Senate Democrats represented states that didn’t vote to re-elect Clinton in 1996. That included: then-Sens. Max Baucus (Montana), Evan Bayh (Indiana), Max Cleland (Georgia), Kent Conrad (North Dakota), Tom Daschle (South Dakota), Byron Dorgan (North Dakota), John Edwards (North Carolina), Fritz Hollings (South Dakota), Tim Johnson (South Dakota), Bob Kerrey (Nebraska), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas) and Chuck Robb (Virginia).
(It’s telling that none of members are still in the Senate – and only one of those 13 seats (Robb’s) is still held by a Democrat)
In a parallel universe, it’s doubtful that 12 of 13 of those Democratic senators would have voted to convict Clinton. As the Senate Minority Leader, Daschle’s mission was to prevent a conviction, not enable it – not unless he planned a full-scale jail-break.
Lincoln, hailing from Arkansas, might have had hell to pay back home if she voted against the famous native son. And Edwards, already with an eye on an eventual presidential run, might have chosen a path of the less resistance – i.e., avoiding unpleasant conservations down the road with Iowa and New Hampshire primary voters.
In 2019 or 2020, any possibility of ending the Trump presidency via the impeachment route begins with one simple question: would 20 Republican senators will be willing to vote guilty (actually, it might be more than 20 Republicans needed, depending on whether Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is willing to cut against a grain that voted 68.5% for Trump in 2016 and Sen. Doug Jones, up for re-election next year, wants to play with fire in a state that was 62.9% pro-Trump in 2016).
In today’s Senate, only two Republican senators – Susan Collins (Maine) and Cory Gardner (Colorado) – hail from states that opted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. They’re both up for re-election next year, so there’s a better chance of a vote to convict if the choice comes after their respective primaries (June 9, in Maine, and June 30 in Colorado).
Who else, in the GOP caucus, would be willing to defy the Trump White House? Mitt Romney comes to mind. So too does Arizona Sen. Martha McSally. She inherited John McCain’s seat and, let’s face, sticking it to Trump is the “McCainiac” thing to do (Arizona’s Senate primary, by the way: August 4).
Otherwise, given the nature of the current Ukraine accusations – a lot of smoke and, in true Clintonian fashion, a lot of parsing of words and intent – it’s unsure how Democrats would find the 67 votes necessary to convict the president, much less get past 50.
A silent majority of Senate Republicans who’d willingly impeach Trump if they could do so in private?
Maybe, if Jeff Flake’s not spinning us.
But the number of Republican senators willing to publicly turn on the Republican president?
Unless something drastic occurs, it’s highly doubtful.