Republican senators were more deeply involved in orchestrating President Donald Trump’s defense in his first impeachment trial than previously known, according to excerpts from a forthcoming book shared exclusively with HuffPost.
In “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump,” due out Oct. 18, Politico’s Rachael Bade and The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian offer a behind-the-scenes look at the two failed efforts to remove Trump from political power.
The first attempt, which began in 2019 and culminated in an early-2020 Senate trial, dealt with Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine on the condition that the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would announce an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. The House impeached Trump for abuse of power, but the GOP-controlled Senate acquitted the president with just one Republican dissent: Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.
Trump and his defense team maintained he did nothing wrong throughout the January 2020 trial and that no “quid pro quo” had taken place, even though he was caught on tape telling Zelenskyy to “do us a favor” by launching a probe of Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Former law professor Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer for Trump, went so far as to argue before the entire Senate that Trump could have done whatever he wanted to get himself reelected if he believed that his own reelection would be in the public interest, a sweeping claim of executive power.
The outlandish line of defense alarmed a number of Republican senators who sat in the chamber for weeks as “jurors” in the impeachment trial, according to “Unchecked.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told Trump’s team afterward to fire Dershowitz on the spot, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned them to switch tactics.
“Out of one hundred senators, you have zero who believe you that there was no quid pro quo. None. There’s not a single one,” Cruz reportedly said at one point, contradicting what Republicans were saying publicly about the charges at the time.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also fumed at Trump’s legal team after they fumbled responding to a senator’s question about calling new witnesses. Trump’s attorneys said that it was simply too late to do so, a line Graham worried would lose Republican votes.
“We are FUCKED. We are FUCKED!” Graham, a top Trump ally, reportedly said afterward as he walked into the GOP cloakroom, a private chamber adjacent to the Senate floor.
Publicly, many GOP senators refrained from commenting on the substance of the proceedings, telling reporters doing so would be inappropriate because of their responsibility to remain neutral as jurors. But privately, the ineptitude of Trump’s legal team forced them to take matters into their own hands, Bade and Demirjian report.
Their goal was to convince a small group of moderate GOP senators to vote against hearing testimony from witnesses like Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who had claimed in a book that Trump specifically told him that he withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to obtain an investigation into Biden and his son. The book’s release had rattled the entire GOP conference.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell played a pivotal role in convincing GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to vote against hearing from witnesses in the trial ― an outcome he feared would split the caucus and cost it control of the Senate, but which ended up happening anyway in large part due to the man he was working to protect.
“This is not about this president. It’s not about anything he’s been accused of doing,” McConnell told his caucus, according to the book. “It has always been about November 3, 2020. It’s about flipping the Senate.”
McConnell sent Murkowski examples of attacks Democratic groups launched against Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who presided over the trial. His argument to Murkowski boiled down to this: If she voted to allow witnesses, the motion would tie at 50-50, forcing Roberts to break the tie and make a decision that would politicize the court and anger one side or the other.
At one point during the Q&A portion of the trial, McConnell’s top legal counsel Andrew Ferguson dictated an answer to an overtly leading question posed by Republican senators and urged Trump’s legal team to deliver it before the Senate. The answer essentially conceded that even if Trump had done what Democrats alleged, it wasn’t impeachable. The book recounts:
The group gathered around a laptop to weigh in as Ferguson typed. “Assuming for argument’s sake that John Bolton were to testify in the light most favorable to the allegations…isn’t it true that the allegations still would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense? They agreed to ask. “And that therefore…his testimony would add nothing to this case?”
But the senators were worried. Trump’s lawyers had already proven themselves unreliable, even when lobbed the easiest softball questions. “Is Trump’s team going to answer this the right way?” Graham asked.
“I will go down there and tell them to answer it the right way,” Ferguson vowed.
Trump’s team answered it as intended and the motion to hear witnesses ultimately failed in a 51-49 vote. Romney and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine were the only Republicans to join Democrats in voting for witnesses.
The book also details how Murkowski struggled with her decision on witness testimony after publicly calling out McConnell over his pledge to act in “total coordination” with the Trump White House as the trial unfolded. McConnell cited as precedent President Bill Clinton’s contacts with Democratic senators during his 1999 impeachment trial. But Murkowski blasted McConnell over his view that jurors aren’t really impartial, saying in an interview before the trial kicked off that she was “disturbed” by his comments.
The interview earned Murkowski an “angry” email from McConnell the next day, according to the book.
In an interview with the book’s authors, the Alaska Republican, who is facing reelection next month, compared her Trump-dominated party to an animal native to her state:
To Murkowski, the party had transformed into a mindless herd of Arctic musk ox: eight-hundred-pound beasts that form a protective circle around their young, with their horns turned outward and their rears tucked inside. Republican leaders, much to her frustration, were constantly telling their rank and file: “You gotta circle. You gotta circle together to protect one another here” – which meant, of course, circling to protect Trump. Just like musk ox, Murkowski thought.