With the House likely to impeach Donald Trump in the coming months, the focus in Washington is quickly turning to the Republican-controlled Senate, which would serve as the jury in a hypothetical trial of the president.
Republican senators have been extremely cautious about the steady drip of revelations surrounding Trump and his conduct with foreign leaders, including his July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine and his public call for China to investigate Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Those facing competitive reelection fights next year, like Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Joni Ernst of Iowa, have refused to answer questions as to whether the president should be able to ask foreign countries for dirt on his political rival, pointing instead to an ongoing Senate Intelligence Committee investigation.
“We don’t know what is accurate at this point,” Ernst told a reporter Wednesday who tried three times to get an answer from the senator about the appropriateness of Trump’s requests to foreign leaders.
But other GOP senators who are under less political pressure at home and are more likely to break with Trump are willing to concede the president erred by asking foreign governments to target his potential 2020 opponent. They just don’t think it’s enough of a transgression to force him out of office.
“It’s inappropriate for the president to be talking with foreign governments about investigating his political opponents, but impeachment would be a mistake,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is retiring next year.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) took the same line, telling The Columbus Dispatch that it’s “not appropriate for a president to engage a foreign government in an investigation of a political opponent.” But he, too, said he didn’t view it as an impeachable offense.
Neither senator identified what consequence Trump ought to face for his actions, however.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), meanwhile, said Trump ought to be judged in the 2020 election, the same election Trump is encouraging foreign governments to interfere in.
“There is, I think, latitude in our system to have errors of judgment and inappropriate actions remedied through the political process. It’s called an election,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Polls have shown a remarkable shift in public opinion on the question of impeachment. Though different wording in each poll can affect results, they do show an increase in voter support for an impeachment inquiry at the very least. On Wednesday, a Fox News poll found that a majority of voters (51%) support Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, an increase from their previous survey ― suggesting the president’s attempts to spin his phone call with the president of Ukraine as “perfect” is not panning out.
Trump still has plenty of defenders in the Senate, though. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, maintains Trump did nothing wrong in his phone call with the leader of Ukraine. Graham is far more upset with the president over his abrupt decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria ― abandoning the Kurds, whom the U.S. supported in the fight against the Islamic State, to a Turkish military invasion.
“I think he’s putting the nation at risk, and I think he’s putting his presidency at risk,” Graham told Axios about the move on Wednesday.
While Trump’s Syria announcement has elicited more anger from Senate Republicans than any of Trump’s previous controversies (at the worst possible time for him as House Democrats press on with their impeachment inquiry), few Republicans have suggested any repercussions.
But that changed Thursday, when Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who is not seeking reelection, announced he was withdrawing support from Trump over Turkey.
“I’m heartbroken,” Shimkus said in an interview with radio station KMOX. “In fact, I called my chief of staff in D.C. and said, ‘Pull my name off the I support Donald Trump list.’ ... It’s terrible. It’s despicable.”