Outraged by what they see as a coverup in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, grassroots activists are planning a massive “payback project” designed to punish Republican senators at the ballot box.
Even as key Republican senators acknowledged Trump’s guilt on charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress, they defied public opinion on Friday by voting to block witnesses and documents, paving the way for the president to be acquitted and claim exoneration.
Republican fealty to Trump has long wearied liberals but the senators’ move appeared to cause a new level of anger. The Indivisible Project, a progressive group, announced it would target nine senators, among them majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, in November’s elections.
Indivisible said it would next week call out one of the “nine Payback Project senators for their participating in a coverup by placing a full page newspaper ad in one of their biggest state papers”. In an appeal to activists, it said “rage is good for recruiting. Hello. Are you pissed about impeachment too?”
Trump was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in December, for seeking to coerce a foreign government for his own personal political gain. Two articles of impeachment – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – were transferred to the Senate for trial.
But on Friday the Senate failed to allow documents and new witnesses including the former national security adviser John Bolton, who in an upcoming book accuses the president of making military aid to Ukraine conditional on an investigation into his rival Joe Biden.
Every impeachment trial in US history, including the two that featured presidents, allowed documents and witnesses. But only two Republicans voted in favour: Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah.
Some said they did not think Trump did anything wrong. Others went through extraordinary contortions. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rob Portman of Ohio reasoned that Trump’s actions were wrong but not impeachable.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press due to be broadcast on Sunday, Alexander said: “If you have eight witnesses who say someone left the scene of an accident, why do you need nine? I mean, the question for me was: do I need more evidence to conclude that the president did what he did? And I concluded no.”
Alexander told the New York Times why that was not enough to require Trump’s removal: “The Senate reflects the country, and the country is as divided as it has been for a long time. For the Senate to tear up the ballots in this election and say President Trump couldn’t be on it, the country probably wouldn’t accept that. It would just pour gasoline on cultural fires that are burning out there.”
In a stunning Medium post, Marco Rubio of Florida, humiliated by Trump in the 2016 primary, went even further, arguing that impeachment would be too divisive even if a president engaged in clearly impeachable conduct.
“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,” he wrote.
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a moderate who Democrats courted, said the case was rushed and flawed. She told reporters she was “angry at all sides” and the prospect of a tie vote on witnesses weighed on her decision. She also said she knew how she would vote on the charges but: “Will I share it with you tonight? I’ve had so much drama today, I’m just going to chill. How’s that? Was that fair?”
Trump’s takeover of the Republican party appears complete. On Saturday the widely read Politico Playbook commented: “Here’s the truth: Republicans are not comfortable with the president’s behavior. They say it privately, some say it publicly on their way out.
“But they have no incentive to say this aloud no matter how egregious they believe the president’s behavior to be. To win as a Republican in any seat that’s at all marginal, you need to appeal to Republicans to vote.”
Republicans who break from Trump can face a bitter backlash. Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union, announced on Twitter that Romney was “formally NOT invited” to the influential Conservative Political Action Conference.
Democrats will seek to make Republicans pay in November, as they did in the 2018 midterms when victory in the House made impeachment possible. Under the headline, “How impeachment could flip the Senate”, Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, wrote in the Washington Post that “impeachment is likely to have an outsize impact” and every Republican senator will “own Trump’s emboldened rhetoric of being exonerated”.
He added: “Some 63% of voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina look unfavourably on the Senate’s decision … to disallow witnesses and hide documents… That may partly explain why the five Republican senators are ‘underwater’, meaning more constituents view them negatively than positively.”
The trial will resume on Monday for final arguments. That evening, Trump is sure to cruise to victory in the Iowa caucuses while Democrats battle for the right to challenge him. The president will deliver his state of the union address on Tuesday and is set to be acquitted by the Senate on the following day.
As he did after special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump is expected to falsely claim “total exoneration” and that Democrats seek to overturn the last election. In turn, Democrats will warn that the president will solicit foreign interference again.
David Axelrod, a former chief strategist for Barack Obama, suggested the trial could inflict lasting damage.
“For Trump, this trial is going to end swiftly, as he hoped,” he tweeted. “But it’s not ending well. Far from vindication, even some who oppose his removal, acknowledge his guilt. And the conspicuous avoidance of material witnesses like Bolton casts an inescapable shadow.”