J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Democrats placed their hopes on Senator Lamar Alexander, and last night, the Tennessean brushed those hopes into the dustbin. Alexander announced that he would not vote to call witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, effectively ruling out any chance of introducing new evidence or extending the trial.

But if Democrats didn’t get what they’d hoped for, Alexander gave them the best outcome they could have expected. By condemning Trump’s behavior, even as he dashed the hopes for witnesses, Alexander seems to have created a safe space for some of his fellow Republicans to label Trump’s extortion of Ukraine wrong.

Since the outset of the impeachment inquiry, it’s been clear that Trump would not be removed from office. Nonetheless, Democrats said they were impeaching the president not because he’d be removed but because it was essential to send the message that his behavior was unacceptable. Realistically, the best outcome would be for some Republicans to agree, and to chastise Trump.

For a long time, it seemed Democrats might not even get that. In the House, views on Trump’s conduct split along party lines. Not a single Republican voted to impeach him, despite the extensive evidence. Many House Republicans argued, implausibly, that Trump’s behavior really had been “perfect.”

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.”

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.”

These equivocal statements may be infuriating to anyone who has spent any time over the past week or two watching the Senate trial or reviewing the evidence. They are an attempt to protect against future embarrassment. As new revelations from former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book emerged today, ceding the facts to Democrats could be an attempt to inoculate against more damaging information in the future.

But again, Republicans were never going to convict Trump and remove him from office, no matter what they learned from John Bolton or anyone else. As I wrote this morning, the Republican Party has already concluded that politics is paramount, and decided to cast its lot with the president, rather than against him.

Democratic managers have argued throughout the trial that impeachment is not merely about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine in the past, but also about the future: It is about whether Trump will feel that he has license to coerce foreign interference in the 2020 election if he gets off (spoiler: he already does), and about future presidents. If that is true, it’s far better for Republicans to acquit Trump while chastising him than to acquit him while supporting the White House talking point that his behavior was perfect.

Then again, precedents never seem to hold much sway over Trump. The president is probably more likely to lash out at Republican senators making these tentative statements than he is to take the statements as a warning to moderate his behavior going forward. The lesson for Trump is that even when senators think his behavior is egregious, they’ll punt and say it’s up to voters to decide.

This makes it hard to believe that the scolding from Alexander and his acolytes will matter a great deal, but it’s also hard to believe that anyone expected more. Alexander is not the hero that the impeachment process needed, nor perhaps even the one it deserved. But he is as close as anyone was going to get.

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