Initially, the party line held in the Senate as well. With the notable exception of Mitt Romney of Utah, most Republicans declined to even tut-tut the president’s behavior, scared of either his wrath or that of his supporters.
Alexander broke that stasis. His statement split the difference, acknowledging Trump’s error while also concluding that it didn’t meet the standard for removal. Notably, he said he didn’t think there was a need to call witnesses, because the Democrats had already proved the facts of their case against Trump—even if he was not prepared to endorse the remedy they demanded.
“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,” he said. “When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law.”
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Alexander is attempting something like the maneuver some of his Senate Democratic colleagues pulled in 1999, during the previous presidential impeachment trial, when they condemned Bill Clinton’s actions but still said they didn’t rise to the level of removal. The analogy is imperfect: Clinton’s behavior was appalling but personal, while Trump’s cuts to national security and rule of law. If undermining the principle of equal justice under the law doesn’t justify removal, what does?
Weak though it is, Alexander’s statement still placed him outside the mainstream of Senate Republicans. But this expression of disapproval from a retiring elder statesman of the caucus seems to have given some other members the courage to take a similar stand. The result is several senators who acknowledge or imply that the president is guilty of the charges against him but don’t think they merit removing him from office.
For example, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said in his own statement, “I do not believe that additional witnesses are needed. I have said consistently for the past four months, since the Zelensky transcript was first released, that I believe that some of the president’s actions in this case—including asking a foreign country to investigate a potential political opponent and the delay of aid to Ukraine—were wrong and inappropriate.”
Let’s not overstate the courage on display, though. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska told reporters, “Let me be clear: Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us”—but didn’t answer when asked directly whether he thinks Trump acted inappropriately. But even Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who will be nobody’s pick for an updated edition of Profiles in Courage, acknowledged that “just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office.”