What were Senate Republicans voting on Tuesday when they opposed the impeachment trial of Donald Trump? Not whether Trump stays in office — he's already left. Not how he's remembered by history — 400,000 dead from the coronavirus have already decided that question. Instead, the fate they were deciding was their own.
Sadly, most showed they still aren't ready to begin reclaiming the party from the conspiracists. Just five GOP senators joined Democrats to vote down Republican Sen. Rand Paul's motion that the impeachment proceedings were unconstitutional because Trump's term has finished. At least 17 Republicans will have to join Democrats to reach the two-thirds threshold to convict Trump, a necessary step before a follow-up vote can be held to permanently bar him from federal office.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was the only Republican who voted to remove Trump from office during his first impeachment. The question before the Senate was whether it was OK for a president to blackmail a foreign country into helping him cheat in an election, and whatever their pusillanimous protestations otherwise, every other member of his party voted yes.
On Tuesday, Romney finally had some company. He was joined by the same four colleagues — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — who also joined him in November in acknowledging Joe Biden's victory and standing steadfast in opposition to outlandish claims that the election was rigged or stolen.
Murkowski denounced Trump for having "perpetrated false rhetoric that the election was stolen and rigged, even after dozens of courts ruled against these claims." Sasse said Trump didn't have any evidence to back up his claims of election fraud, "and neither do the institutional arsonist members of Congress who will object to the Electoral College vote."
Those five votes — and the senators' clear, forceful statements against Trump's lies since the election — suggest that there is still a healthy, responsible part of the party (albeit a small one). But there's no guarantee it will survive. As the saying goes, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one.
And Republicans have a very serious problem.
As they know better than anyone else, the kinds of politicians who populate the Senate don't have a place in the party they've helped create. No matter how much they court Trump's base or dog-whistle to the conspiracy theorists, foreign policy hawks like Marco Rubio of Florida, anti-poverty innovators like Tim Scott of South Carolina, old-school appropriators like Roy Blunt of Missouri, chameleons like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and erstwhile constitutional libertarians like Mike Lee of Utah don't have a place in a party whose future belongs to Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, two freshman Republicans who have expressed sympathy for the QAnon cult.
Boebert live-tweeted about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's location during the Capitol insurrection Jan. 6 as Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, was being rushed to a secure location. Greene, among other offenses, made comments in 2018 and 2019 suggesting that she supported executing prominent Democrats.
Some of the senators who endorsed Paul's motion Tuesday might be tempted to think they can simply move on from Trump and therefore want to avoid an impeachment trial so his entire shameful presidency can be forgotten as quickly as possible.
But they've helped to create a disaster much bigger than Trump. By giving in to him at every turn, Republicans helped create the epidemic of conspiracy theories and alternative facts rampant in the Republican Party.
Perhaps most consequentially, they endorsed his Big Lie about the election. It wasn't just Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri who propagated fantasies about widespread voter fraud, irregularities and a "steal." Fourteen Senate Republicans announced before the attack on the Capitol that they planned to object to counting at least one state's electoral votes, even though Trump had won none of his more than 60 lawsuits trying to overturn the results and even though no evidence of widespread voter fraud was found by election officials in any state regardless of party.
It was this penchant for conspiracy theories, fueled by the metastasis of QAnon and stoked by some Senate Republicans, that created the explosion at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
So now Republicans have to stamp out this mass delusion by convicting Trump and disqualifying him from federal office. If they don't, they'll only accelerate the conspiracist takeover of the GOP. But even these steps are not sufficient to repair the party. The remaining GOP officeholders must repeat the truth, and their mea culpas, until the Republican base no longer believes the election was illegitimate.
Yet 45 Republican senators voted against taking up the impeachment trial Tuesday. Some want to spend as little time thinking and talking about Trump as possible, but many are still in thrall to his base. Twenty Republican-held Senate seats will be contested in two years, and the current occupants no doubt fear primary challengers from the MAGA right if they show any sign of breaking with Trump. What's less clear is why, given their rhetoric and behavior over the last four years, they think the country would be any worse off with Trump sycophants in their seats.
Thanks to the impeachment process they've been gifted by the Democrats, Senate Republicans have one last chance to break with Trump and the conspiracist authoritarianism he represents. Their opening move Tuesday was a weak one, but they still have time for a course correction when the vote on conviction takes place next month. If they won't do it for the country, they should at least do it to save their place in the party.