10 Senators Could Have Stopped Trump

In late June of 2022, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former Trump-administration aide, provided testimony to the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. This testimony was unnerving, even compared with previous revelations concerning Donald Trump’s malignant behavior that day. Hutchinson testified that the president, when told that some of his supporters were carrying weapons, said, “I don’t fucking care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the fucking mags away.” He was referring to the metal detectors meant to screen protesters joining his rally on the Ellipse, near the White House.

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Hutchinson also testified that Trump became so frantic in his desire to join the march to the Capitol that at one point he tried to grab the steering wheel of his SUV. This assertion has subsequently been disputed by Secret Service agents, but what has not been disputed is an exchange, reported by Hutchinson, between White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff. In this conversation, which took place as Trump supporters were breaching the Capitol, Cipollone told Meadows, “We need to do something more—they’re literally calling for [Vice President Mike Pence] to be fucking hung.” Hutchinson reported that Meadows answered: “You heard [Trump], Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”

Hutchinson seemed like a credible witness, and she was obviously quite brave for testifying. This very young person—she was 25 at the time of her testimony—went against the interests of her political tribe, and her own career advancement, to make a stand for truth and for the norms of democratic behavior. Washington is not overpopulated with such people, and so the discovery of a new one is always reassuring.

As it happened, I watched the hearing while waiting to interview then-Senator Rob Portman, a grandee of the pre-Trump Republican establishment, before an audience of 2,000 or so at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The session would also feature Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, who was serving at the time as President Joe Biden’s infrastructure coordinator. Portman’s appearance was considered to be a coup for the festival (for which The Atlantic was once, but was by this time no longer, a sponsor).

Republican elected officials in the age of Trump don’t often show up at these sorts of events, and I found out later that the leaders of the Aspen Institute, the convener of this festival, hoped that I would give Portman, a two-term senator from Ohio, a stress-free ride. The declared subject of our discussion was national infrastructure spending, so the chance of comity-disturbing outbursts was low. But I did believe it to be my professional responsibility to ask Portman about Hutchinson’s testimony, and, more broadly, about his current views of Donald Trump. In 2016, during Trump’s first campaign for president, Portman withdrew his support for him after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. But Portman endorsed Trump in 2020 and voted to acquit him in the second impeachment trial, and I wanted to ask him if Hutchinson’s testimony, or anything else he had heard in the 18 months since the violent attack on the Capitol, had made him regret his decision.

Portman was one of 43 Republican senators who voted against conviction. Sixty-seven votes were required to convict. If 10 additional Republican senators had joined the 50 Democrats and seven Republicans who voted for conviction, Trump would not today be the party’s presumptive nominee for president, and the country would not be one election away from a constitutional crisis and a possibly irreversible slide into authoritarianism. (Technically, a second vote after conviction would have been required to ban Trump from holding public office, but presumably this second vote would have followed naturally from the first.)

It would be unfair to blame Portman disproportionately for the devastating reality that Donald Trump, who is currently free on bail but could be a convicted felon by November, is once again a candidate for president. The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, denounced Trump for his actions on January 6, and yet still voted to acquit him. Trump’s continued political viability is as much McConnell’s fault as anyone’s.

But I was interested in pressing Portman because, unlike some of his dimmer colleagues, he clearly understood the threat Trump posed to constitutional order, and he was clearly, by virtue of his sterling reputation, in a position to influence his colleagues. Some senators in the group of 43 are true believers, men like Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who, in the words of Mitt Romney (as reported by the Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins), never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t believe. But Portman wasn’t a know-nothing. He was one of the most accomplished and respected members of the Senate. He had been a high-ranking official in the White House of George H. W. Bush, then a hardworking member of the House of Representatives. In George W. Bush’s administration, he served as the U.S. trade representative and later as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was well known for his cerebral qualities and his mastery of the federal budget. He was also known to loathe Donald Trump. In other words, Portman knew better.

“I do want to ask you directly,” I said, when we sat onstage, “given what you know now about what happened on January 6, do you regret your vote to acquit in impeachment?”

Portman immediately expressed his unhappiness with what he took to be an outré question. “You have just surprised me,” he said, complaining that I hadn’t told him beforehand that I would ask him about Trump. (American journalists generally do not warn government officials of their questions ahead of time.) He went on to say, “You know that I spoke out in the strongest possible terms on January 6.”

Indeed he had. This is what Portman said on the Senate floor once the Capitol had been secured: “I want the American people, particularly my constituents in Ohio, to see that we will not be intimidated, that we will not be disrupted from our work, that here in the citadel of democracy, we will continue to do the work of the people. Mob rule is not going to prevail here.”

Onstage, Portman reminded me of his comments. “On the night it happened, I took to the Senate floor and gave an impassioned speech about democracy and the need to protect it. So that’s who I am.”

But this is incorrect. This is not who he is. Portman showed the people of Ohio who he is five weeks later, on February 13, when he voted to acquit Trump, the man he knew to have fomented a violent, antidemocratic insurrection meant to overturn the results of a fair election.

His argument during impeachment, and later, onstage with me, was that voting to convict an ex-president would have violated constitutional norms, and would have further politicized the impeachment process. “Do you think it would be a good idea for President Obama to be impeached by the new Republican Congress?” he asked. He went on, “Well, he’s a former president, and I think he should be out of reach. And Donald Trump was a former president. If you start that precedent, trust me, Republicans will do the same thing. They will.”

It was an interesting, and also pathetic, point to make: Portman was arguing that his Republican colleagues are so corrupt that they would impeach a president who had committed no impeachable offenses simply out of spite.

I eventually pivoted the discussion to the topic of bridges in Ohio, but Portman remained upset, rushing offstage at the end of the conversation to confront the leaders of the festival, who tried to placate him.

Initially, I found his defensive behavior odd. A senator should not be so flustered by a straightforward question about one of his most consequential and historic votes. But I surmised, from subsequent conversations with members of the Republican Senate caucus, that he, like others, felt a certain degree of shame about his continued excuse-making for the authoritarian hijacker of his beloved party.

The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, one of the world’s leading experts on authoritarianism, wrote in 2020 that complicity, rather than dissent, is the norm for humans, and especially for status-and-relevance-seeking politicians. There are many explanations for complicity, Applebaum argued. A potent one is fear. Many Republican elected officials, she wrote, “don’t know that similar waves of fear have helped transform other democracies into dictatorships.”

None of the 43 senators who allowed Donald Trump to escape conviction made fear their argument, of course. Not publicly anyway. The excuses ranged widely. Here are the stirring and angry words of Dan Sullivan, the junior senator from Alaska, explaining his vote to acquit: “Make no mistake: I condemn the horrific violence that engulfed the Capitol on January 6. I also condemn former President Trump’s poor judgment in calling a rally on that day, and his actions and inactions when it turned into a riot. His blatant disregard for his own vice president, Mike Pence, who was fulfilling his constitutional duty at the Capitol, infuriates me.”

Sullivan voted to acquit, he said, because he didn’t think it right to impeach a former president. Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota, argued that “the January 6 attacks on the Capitol were appalling, and President Trump’s remarks were reckless.” But Cramer went on to say that, “based on the evidence presented in the trial, he did not commit an impeachable offense.” Chuck Grassley of Iowa said, in explaining his vote, “Undoubtedly, then-President Trump displayed poor leadership in his words and actions. I do not defend those actions, and my vote should not be read as a defense of those actions.” He continued, “Just because President Trump did not meet the definition of inciting insurrection does not mean that I think he behaved well.”

Now contrast this run of greasy and sad excuse-making with Mitt Romney’s explanation for his vote to convict: “The president’s conduct represented an unprecedented violation of his oath of office and of the public trust. There is a thin line that separates our democratic republic from an autocracy: It is a free and fair election and the peaceful transfer of power that follows it. President Trump attempted to breach that line, again. What he attempted is what was most feared by the Founders. It is the reason they invested Congress with the power to impeach. Accordingly, I voted to convict President Trump.”

On February 13, 2021, Romney was joined by six other Republicans—North Carolina’s Richard Burr, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Maine’s Susan Collins, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey—in voting to convict. If the United States and its Constitution survive the coming challenge from Trump and Trumpism, statues will one day be raised to these seven. As for Rob Portman and his colleagues, they should hope that they will merely be forgotten.

*Lead image sources: (left to right from top) Douglas Christian / ZUMA Press / Alamy; MediaPunch / Alamy; Tasos Katopodis / Getty; Hum Images / Alamy; Danita Delimont / Alamy; Anna Moneymaker / Getty; Samuel Corum / Getty; Anna Moneymaker / Getty; Al Drago / Bloomberg / Getty; Samuel Corum / Getty; Anna Moneymaker / Getty

This article appears in the May 2024 print edition with the headline “A Study in Senate Cowardice.”

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