The Morning Dispatch: Breaking Down Senate Republicans’ Impeachment Votes

Plus, is it just us, or are things suddenly looking really bad for Joe Biden?

Happy Thursday! Your Morning Dispatchers swapped roles today, with Andrew newly back from Iowa and Declan taking off for New Hampshire. Look forward to hearing reports from him in the days ahead. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Senate voted to acquit President Trump, 52-48 and 53-47, on both charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress related to his pressuring the Ukrainian government to announce investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden and the Democratic National Committee. 

  • Nevertheless, the Ukraine saga is far from played out, as both Republicans and Democrats signaled Wednesday they plan to soldier on investigating alleged misconduct: House Democrats by continuing to seek testimony from former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Senate Republicans by continuing to investigate Hunter Biden

  • The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that the ongoing trade war with China has shrunk our trade deficit with the country by nearly $75 billion since 2018—but that the total international trade deficit for goods and services has remained steady at just north of $1 trillion, showing that U.S. importers have simply moved from buying from China to buying from other markets, notably Europe. 

  • The Department of Homeland Security is suspending several Trusted Traveler Programs for all New York residents after the state passed a law designed to protect illegal immigrants by prohibiting state DMVs from sharing criminal records with federal immigration officials. 

  • Incredibly, we still don’t have full results of Monday’s primary in Iowa: As of Wednesday night, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders were still neck-and-neck with 91 percent of results reported.

  • Meanwhile, the latest New Hampshire poll shows that state following Iowa’s lead: Sanders leading at 25 percent, Buttigieg surging to 19 percent, Biden slumping to 12 percent. 

The Four Stages of Acquittal

For weeks, if not months, President Trump’s acquittal at the culmination of the impeachment saga was all but assured. No matter how many leaks damaging to the president’s case surfaced, no matter how many witnesses testified contradicting the administration’s line, no matter how often Rudy Giuliani opened his mouth, Trump had in his corner the 34 Republican senators necessary (and then some) to block his removal from office.

Yet when it came time for senators to cast their votes Wednesday, we still stared—bug-eyed—at the C-SPAN feed on our laptops like Michael Bluth opening a brown paper bag from the freezer labeled “DEAD DOVE Do Not Eat!” and immediately lamenting, “Well, I don’t know what I expected.”

Trump was acquitted on both counts: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

But precisely because we knew how Wednesday would play out, we decided to dig deeper and find a more interesting story. Although 52 and 53 Republican senators voted to clear President Trump on the two charges, they did not all reach that conclusion in the same way.

Over the past several days, we’ve dug into each Republican member of the Senate’s public statements on impeachment to determine whether they believe—despite voting to acquit him—Trump acted inappropriately by leveraging military aid to encourage Ukraine to open an investigation into his political rival. 

In some cases—as we’ll detail momentarily—such a determination was unambiguous and clear-cut. In many cases, it was not. We reached out to about 40 GOP senate offices with a simple question: Do you believe Trump's actions in Ukraine were improper in any way? Not all responded, but many did. 

Based on this research, reporting, and a few Dispatch judgment calls, we divided the conference into four groups: 19 Republican senators believe Trump did nothing wrong, 17 believe he committed an improper-but-not-impeachable offense, and 16 have employed Patches O’Houlihan’s “5 D’s of Dodgeball” to avoid answering the question altogether. And then there’s Mitt.

The below graphic outlines who’s who.

Trump did nothing wrong.

This is the White House’s line, and in turn the most popular within the conference. Since Trump first deemed his call with Ukrainian President Zelensky “perfect” back in the fall, the most hardline of the president’s defenders have been stuck, unable to deviate from a position that grew less and less tethered to reality as evidence emerged.

“There was nothing wrong with President Trump’s phone call with President Zelensky of Ukraine,” Sen. Jim Inhofe said in a statement. “President Trump voluntarily released the transcript of the call.”

“I didn’t think the transcript was all that alarming or even inappropriate,” Sen. Kevin Cramer told reporters. “I thought it was a fine phone call if not perfect.”

“I’m more in the camp that says it was nearly perfect,” Sen. Tim Scott said on Fox News when asked to respond to those who viewed Trump’s call as improper. “I would say it’s hard to call it perfect, but it’s even harder to call it impeachable.”

Sen. David Perdue’s statement on Trump’s acquittal concluded that “there was zero evidence of any wrongdoing” on the president’s part.

Trump did something wrong, but it is not impeachable.

“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation,” Sen. Lamar Alexander said in his statement that foreclosed the possibility of additional witnesses being subpoenaed. “When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law.”

This became a more popular view as proceedings in the Senate moved toward the acquittal vote. It’d probably have even more advocates if elections didn’t exist or they were wrapped in the coils of Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. It’s a view that takes into account the mountain of public evidence that Trump did what he was accused of doing — using aid authorized by Congress for an important ally in an attempt to coerce that ally to undertake or at least announce politically damaging investigations into the president’s domestic political allies — but concludes that he nonetheless shouldn’t be removed from office nine months before an election.

Some in this category, like Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, trumpet their criticism of Trump’s conduct for all to hear. Others, like Sens. Rick Scott and Ted Cruz, conceded once or twice in a local paper that they might have handled the situation slightly differently. 

“Would I use the exact language that the president uses on some of these calls?” Sen. Dan Sullivan asked himself. “You know, probably not, but are these impeachable offenses? No. Not from my view.”

“Some of the president’s lawyers have admitted that the way the administration conducted policymaking toward Ukraine was wrong,” Sen. Ben Sasse wrote in an open letter. “I agree. The call with Zelensky was certainly not ‘perfect,’ and the president’s defense was made weaker by staking out that unrepentant position.”

Artfully avoided addressing the question.

Senators who couldn’t bring themselves to take one of those two positions found political viability in a third: sidestepping the issue entirely whenever it came up. Some of these senators, like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were asked their opinion on Trump’s conduct repeatedly—and demurred. Others, like Sen. Mike Crapo, were able to largely avoid questions about the phone call, and put out statements that focused on the Democrats’ case instead.

For these offices, pressing over email yielded little information.

“The senator issued his statement on this as you noted, and long story short: No crimes, nothing impeachable,” a spokeswoman for Sen. Steve Daines responded when asked to clarify whether or not Trump’s behavior in Ukraine was proper.

“[We] read Sen. Young's statement about voting to acquit President Trump later today,” The Dispatch emailed a spokeswoman for the Indiana senator. “[We were] wondering if he believes Trump's actions in Ukraine were improper in any way?” 

“Please refer to Senator Young’s statement,” the spokeswoman replied.

Sen. Cory Gardner had this play out on live TV rather than over email, his determination not to answer the question made for uncomfortable viewing.

Trump did something wrong, and it is impeachable.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney.

For the first time in American history, a senator in an impeachment trial has voted to remove a president of his or her own party.

It’s an historic decision, and by all accounts not one that Romney came to lightly. 

President Trump’s actions in Ukraine were “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values,” Romney said on the Senate floor, shocking his colleagues. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”

The ire against the GOP’s standard bearer just eight years ago came both immediate and fierce. 

“Mitt should be expelled from the @SenateGOP conference,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr., who recently published a book titled Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. He would go on to tweet or retweet about Romney 21 more times before we hit send on this newsletter.

Ronna McDaniel, RNC chairwoman (and Mitt Romney’s niece, who used to go by Ronna Romney McDaniel), called out her uncle and declared that she, “along with the @GOP, stand[s] with President Trump.”

His Republican colleagues pushed back on the #ExpelMitt hashtag while expressing their disappointment with his vote, but Romney knew this would happen. “I don’t know how long the blowback might exist or how strenuous it might be, but I’m anticipating a long time and a very strong response,” he told McKay Coppins for an Atlantic piece.

Sen. Romney is many things, but first and foremost he is a good and decent man. We encourage you to take a few minutes to watch his remarks in full. 

“I acknowledge that my verdict will not remove the president from office. The results of this Senate court will, in fact, be appealed to a higher court, the judgment of the American people. Voters will make the final decision, just as the president’s lawyers have implored. My vote will likely be in the minority in the Senate, but irrespective of these things, with my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability believing that my country expected it of me.”

“I will only be one name among many, no more, no less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial. They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong. We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history, but in the most powerful nation on Earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that distinction is enough for any citizen.”

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‘Biden Has A Big Problem’

With less than a week to go until the New Hampshire primary, it seems increasingly clear that no candidate is able to go into that contest trumpeting an unequivocal Iowa win. Part of that is the fault of the Iowa Democratic Party’s incredible failure to get its act together—every caucus result was calculated on-site three days ago, yet somehow the state party still doesn’t have its hands on the totality of that information. 

Yet even if the caucus-counting had gone as planned, Iowa still wouldn’t have been a coronation by any stretch. That’s because the information we do finally have is plenty muddled itself: Both Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg can claim victory in the state, depending on the metric used to assess it. 

With 91 percent of precincts reporting, the raw numbers tip in Bernie’s favor: His 40,823 voters currently leads Buttigieg by about 1,200. (Warren and Biden lag behind at approximately 32,000 and 22,000 respectively.) But Iowa’s delegate math slightly privileges winning a bunch of low-density precincts over a few high-density ones, which means that Buttigieg, who generally outperformed Sanders outside Iowa’s biggest cities, holds a state delegate lead: 532 to 513. 

But if Iowa didn’t have a sure winner, it’s crystal clear by now that it had a sure loser—Joe Biden. For more than a year, the former vice president has been the 2020 field’s putative frontrunner—boasting strong name recognition, leading in practically every national poll, and operating with a coherent campaign narrative: that Biden was the right candidate for a country that simply wanted to pull back from the chaos of the Trump era to the status quo, and that his earthy, unassuming style would help him court the swing-state blue-collar Democrats who helped elect Trump in 2016. But all the while, it was increasingly clear that Biden just isn’t a very good candidate — at all. There are reasons his previous bids have ended in early failure and those reasons have been evident throughout this campaign season, with his poor performances in debates, his rhetorical stumbles on the stump, and his increasingly acerbic responses to questions that he perceives as unfriendly. And all that was before he came in a distant fourth place in Iowa, dealing a heavy blow to his inevitability- and electability-based argument. 

It may be that all is not lost for Joe Biden. As Dave Wasserman points out, Iowa wasn’t ever a state that was going to show off his strengths: disproportionately whiter and younger when minorities and older voters are where Biden overperforms. 

Yet the caucus still represents a real danger to him in terms of its narrative power. Put simply, Biden has benefitted from being the race’s “default” candidate until now—to what degree, we can’t know. There have already been some signs that his vaunted southern firewall has been wavering: After a full year of big polling leads over his rivals in South Carolina, the most recent state poll showed him a scant five points over Sanders and only seven points over Tom Steyer. If it turns out that the electability argument doesn’t hold up among white Midwesterners, and it doesn’t hold up in his so-called “firewall” state, where does that leave the Biden campaign? 

Democratic insiders are starting to take notice. “Biden has a big problem,” former Obama strategist David Axelrod said on CNN Tuesday. “They expected to do much better, and the big problem he has is not only the deficiencies that showed in his appeal. But he is dead broke, and he needs to raise money. It’s hard to raise money off an anemic fourth-place finish. So he needs to revive himself in New Hampshire, or this firewall that everybody talks about in South Carolina may just not be there for him.” 

If Biden does flame out early, it’s far from clear who will seize the “moderate” mantle from him. Buttigieg, whose strong Iowa finish will give his campaign an adrenaline jolt nationwide, fits the bill in some respects—although, as David French has pointed out, on issues like religious liberty he’s as far-left as they come. Mike Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar are waiting in the wings as well. 

Another possible outcome of a Biden bust: no one picks up the mantle, the moderate vote is split between all those candidates, and Bernie Sanders cruises to the nomination. Democrats who aren’t sure about the whole democratic socialism thing better keep their fingers crossed Biden can hold the line in South Carolina. 

Worth Your Time

  • Look, we don’t mean to pile on Iowa, but you really should check out this piece from ProPublica, which found that the Democrats’ app that failed to function properly was also entirely susceptible to hacking: “so insecure that vote totals, passwords, and other sensitive information could have been intercepted or even changed.” 

  • Writing at Reason, Peter Suderman has a good piece about how Trump’s State of the Union address underscored the ways in which comparing Bernie Sanders’s ideology to Trump’s is just comparing socialism-medium to socialism-lite: “Polls show that Republican voters are widely opposed to socialism… Yet what are Medicare and Social Security except socialist programs limited by age requirements. They are not mandatory savings systems, as many believe, but direct transfer programs in which young workers fund the benefits of older retirees; on average, today's seniors will receive benefits that far exceed what they paid in. Indeed, the mismatch between expected revenues and the expected cost of paying for those benefits is why both programs have substantial long-term shortfalls, and why they are, in tandem, the biggest drivers of long-term federal debt.” 

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Computers may yet enslave the human race sooner or later—but first, they’re going to have to figure out how to stop doing crazy stuff like accidentally sending 55,000 copies of the same letter to some poor guy in Twinsburg, Ohio. 

Toeing the Company Line

  • Tom Joscelyn is out with another must-read edition of his Vital Interests national security newsletter, digging into the current status of a group most Americans don’t think much about anymore: al-Qaeda. “We are in one of those periods when the political class isn’t chattering much about terrorism. Those moments are fleeting and offer false comfort.”

  • A very fun new Dispatch Podcast is out in the wild! Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and David got back in the studio to discuss what went wrong in Iowa, Trump’s State of the Union address, and the end of the impeachment trial. David and Sarah argue over the correct pronunciation of Nevada, Jonah thunders about the current primary system, and Steve proposes a Midwest alternative to the Iowa caucuses with a state that features four seasons, great craft beer and lots of cheese curds.

  • And if that doesn’t satiate your audio thirst, Declan joined Michael Steel on the HPS Insights podcast to talk State of the Union, Trump’s chances heading into 2020, and life at a media startup.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of Mitt Romney by Mario Tama/Getty Images.