WASHINGTON – Let the voters decide. We can speak out against his behavior. And perhaps, just maybe, President Donald Trump has learned from this whole impeachment episode.
Senate Republicans who’ve been uncomfortable with Trump for exerting pressure on Ukraine to launch political probes — but have declined to throw him out of office for it — have come up with a number of what they say are appropriate responses to Trump’s inappropriate conduct, if not impeachment.
But their answers to the question of how to chastise Trump for his dealings with Ukraine amount to little more than a slap on the wrist, again illustrating how Republican lawmakers have struggled to grapple with a president who, in their view, has pushed the boundaries of propriety.
They certainly won’t convict him, and they won’t push for censure, either. So mostly, Republicans who acknowledge that Trump does have some culpability here are hoping that their rhetoric criticizing his behavior will be enough.
Although Trump is a president who famously can admit to no wrongdoing, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — one of the most closely watched Republican senators, who ultimately decided she will acquit Trump on both articles of impeachment Wednesday — insisted that Trump will alter his behavior.
“He was impeached, and there has been criticism by both Republican and Democratic senators of his call,” Collins said in a CBS interview. “I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future.”
In a lunch with news anchors Tuesday, Trump was asked about Collins’ contention that he had learned a lesson during impeachment. The president insisted that he had done nothing wrong: “It was a perfect call.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has said for months that Trump’s conduct was not appropriate. “We’ve put our statements out there and he’s been through an impeachment. It’s all of our responsibility to figure out what we think is the right way to do it,” he said. “For me, it was speaking out.”
Even though Trump on countless occasions has proclaimed his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “perfect,” Portman said he thought the president, as well as the administration, has learned from impeachment. The alternative — removing him from office just nine months before an election — would’ve been “terrible for the country,” Portman said.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, another Republican none too pleased with Trump’s behavior, said: “I think he’s learned that he has to be maybe a little more judicious and careful, the way he’s phrasing certain things.”
She then reassessed her initial thoughts: “Although he may not, because you know, as we’ve said, as was said, he is who he is.”
The reality is that lawmakers, particularly powerful senators, have various tools at their disposal to regain some control and change the behavior of the president and the executive branch. Two years ago, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. placed a unilateral blockade on all Justice Department nominees until the administration solved a dispute with his home state over marijuana policy. The spending bill enacted by Trump in December includes language that makes it more difficult for the administration to deviate from levels set by lawmakers for foreign aid.
But Congresses long before the current one have ceded power to administrations long before this one, and certainly under this presidency, Republicans, aware of Trump’s powerful sway over the base of their party, have mostly stood behind him and been reluctant to antagonize him.
“When we stand back and we don’t challenge the executive, we get what we get, which is a weakened legislative branch and an empowered executive,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who also found Trump’s conduct inappropriate but was unwilling to convict him for it.
When asked whether Republicans were challenging Trump enough, Murkowski responded: “I don’t think any of us are challenging enough.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that, in fact, it was congressional authority and the accompanying threats that got the administration to relinquish the hold on the nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine. On Sept. 11, the Senate Appropriations Committee was prepared to pass a bipartisan amendment that would force the White House to release the funding.
“I know for a fact that the reason why the funds were released on the 11th of September isn’t because as the managers say he got caught or anything else,” Rubio said. “It was because if he hadn’t, the Appropriations Committee was going to pass something that was not only going to require him to release the funds this year but would’ve prevented him from holding those funds the following year.”
Rubio added: “That all exists in our system now, and even in this case, it worked.”
Meanwhile, other Senate Republicans have refused to say whether they approved of Trump’s conduct — even if it was clear, for them, that it didn’t meet an impeachable standard.
“Whether you approve of the way he conducts himself, it really is not relevant to the task that we’ve been given,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.
Cornyn dodged the question three times, noting: “When I have disagreements with the president, I’ve found that it’s more constructive to do it personally.”
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., similarly declined to engage.
“I think we all would agree that we have different points of view,” he said. “But in my opinion, it was not an impeachable offense and I can just leave it at that for now.”
And then there are others who saw nothing wrong in Trump’s conduct.
“I thought the transcript wasn’t all that bad, quite honestly,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., one of the president’s closest allies, referring to the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky during which he asked for the political investigations. “If it was the transcript alone, it’d be ludicrous to bring the impeachment here. So no, I didn’t think the transcript was all that alarming or even inappropriate.”
He paused, then added: “I thought it was a fine call — if not perfect.”