Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega and it's great to be with you on this Monday. The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, now a private citizen, is scheduled to begin next week in the Senate. Just weeks ago, there were signs that impeachment could be a bipartisan issue after a number of prominent Republicans criticized the former president for his role in inciting the Capitol insurrection.
Mitch McConnell: The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.
Kevin McCarthy: The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.
Lindsey Graham: I hate it then this way. Oh my God, I hate it. All I can say is count me out, enough is enough. I've tried to be helpful. When it's over, it is over. It is over.
Tanzina Vega: But now most GOP members are delivering a very different message.
Lindsey Graham: Here's what I'd like. I'd like to get this trial over sooner rather than later to my democratic colleagues. If you try to call one witness, you're going to blow up the United States Senate, don't do that.
Rand Paul: Hyperpartisan Democrats are about to drag our great country down into the gutter of rancor and vitriol, the likes of which has never been seen in our nation's history.
Kevin McCarthy: I want everybody to take a deep breath and understand we all have some responsibility here.
Tanzina Vega: That was House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, who met with Trump last week. Last week, all but five Senate Republicans attempted to block the impeachment trial from moving forward, voting against it as unconstitutional now that Trump is a private citizen. With most congressional Republicans shifting into their roles as members of the opposition party are looking ahead instead to the 2022 midterms, a reckoning within the GOP over the Capitol riots doesn't appear to be coming.
Understanding why the Republican Party is sticking with Donald Trump in his post-presidential days is where we start today. Let's get going with Doug Heye, who's led communication positions in the house, Senate, RNC, and served in the George W. Bush administration. Doug, thanks for coming back on the show.
Doug Heye: It's going to be with you. Thank you.
Tanzina Vega: Also, is Sahil Kapur national political reporter for NBC News. Sahil welcome.
Sahil Kapur: Great to be back.
Tanzina Vega: Doug, I'm having whiplash listening to those statements from top GOP officials here. Why is accountability for what happened at the Capitol considered something that's tearing the country apart right now? How did we go from wanting to hold the president accountable to this?
Doug Heye: I think it comes down to a word called politics. When you talk about accountability, the one thing that House Republicans, Senate Republicans too have been very mindful of over the past four years, is that they face an accountability from their voters and their voters are overwhelmingly supportive of Donald Trump. Again, that's especially more true in the House than in the Senate where you have congressional lines that are drawn in a more partisan way and that's what they're reacting to because that's who they're hearing from most vocally.
I can tell you my conversations with members of Congress on the feedback that they get from their voters is overwhelmingly pro-Trump. One thing that we know about Trump supporters, they're not quiet. It's not a silent majority or silent minority for that matter. They are loud and vocal. That's what they're hearing from, and that's what they're reacting to.
Tanzina Vega: Doug, really, these voters or Trump supporters are intimidating their representatives into believing that this didn't happen and to believing that the former president has no accountability for this?
Doug Heye: They're pushing them to not convict him or not impeach him if it's the votes in the House. That again is what they're reacting to and part of this is, you mentioned in the set-up for the 2022 elections, I can tell you a big part of why House leadership did not vote to impeach the president, House Republican leadership, despite the words of Kevin McCarthy, despite the private misgivings of Steve Scalise, is because they want Donald Trump's support in 2022.
Taking back the House is their biggest priority and if Donald Trump is not on board, they see him as a real impediment to that because he would potentially go in and cause trouble in House Republican primaries and then even in general elections where he wouldn't be supportive. That's a big concern for them.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil I want to bring you in here because I'm wondering, we heard different clips from the GOP leadership immediately following the Capitol insurrection. We heard from McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, were they just shell-shocked by what had just happened and hadn't had a chance to process the political calculations that they were going to have to make? Try to explain this sort of shift here.
Sahil Kapur: I think many Republicans, including party leaders, were legitimately rattled by what happened on January 6th. It was extremely, extremely unusual for them to be in a situation where in the building they work in, in the United States Capitol, their safety and their lives were put at risk. This was an extraordinary event and I think that did play into some of the early Republican reactions criticizing President Trump as a result of this.
It certainly played into the fact that 10 House Republicans voted to impeach former President Trump, making that the most bipartisan impeachment in history but over time, politics has a way of progressing to the mean, and the sentiment, as Doug was pointing out that these lawmakers heard from their Republican voters was overwhelmingly pro-Trump.
That's why you saw a little bit of vacillating early on from the orbit of Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who was reportedly pleased to see impeachment go forward. He seems to have walked a lot of that back and now he is signaling along with 90% of Senate Republicans that they intend to oppose the impeachment trial on a procedural or a technical ground, and by all indications appear likely to acquit the president.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil, I guess we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves here, but if the chances of Trump being convicted here are very low, why are Democrats moving forward with the trial?
Sahil Kapur: They have to have the trial now, it's a little too late not to given that the House has impeached the president and the House managers have walked the papers over to the Senate. There's not much else that can happen except a Senate trial. The recent Democrats that did this was not necessarily out of politics. I think politics had little to do with this. I think this was out of conviction.
There were democratic members who believed that doing impeachment at this time would distract and detract on the Senate floor from President Biden's agenda, from his cabinet nominees, from getting his legislative proposals off the ground and that was a legitimate concern but that argument lost out to the overwhelming sentiment of House Democrats, that if the House won't impeach a president for this, for inciting an insurrection on the US Capitol, putting the safety and lives of lawmakers and everyone at the building at risk, then what is the point of impeachment?
What is the point of having a constitution if a president can aim a dagger at the heart of a legitimate self-government and a legitimate election, and Congress does nothing about it? This was more about conviction than politics.
Tanzina Vega: I think we definitely need to ask that question, Doug. I want to get into some of the folks who voted for impeaching the former president in just a minute, but if the party, as Sahil is pointing out, doesn't hold Donald Trump accountable, or any of the GOP accountable for this, what does that mean?
Doug Heye: It means again, that this process it's about politics. Republicans are very mindful, again, of what they're hearing from their constituents. They're also mindful of what they're hearing from their other members. If you look at the backlash that Liz Cheney has gotten for sticking her neck out and doing what she felt was the right thing, doing so as a member of House leadership, the only member of House leadership to support impeachment. She's being campaigned against already in her district in Wyoming.
I can tell you, I had a Wyoming politician call me saying, "I'm being recruited to run," and this was two days after the vote. That wouldn't have happened if Liz Cheney voted the other way. Members are very mindful of the politics of this. I would equate them sometimes to animals that start to scurry before anybody else sees the earthquake coming but that's the reality of where they are right now.
Tanzina Vega: Doug, 10 House Republicans did vote to impeach former President Donald Trump. What's their calculus there?
Doug Heye: It's hard to say. Politically, I think they know that that it's not a popular move. We just talked about Liz Cheney. Tom Rice in South Carolina has been censured by his own state party. We're seeing other state parties censure Republicans who voted to impeach as well, not that every member of Congress is necessarily worried about what the Oregon Republican Party is doing, but it demonstrates the sense of what is out there in the party right now and that the politics of this are especially treacherous for those Republicans.
I would say there's a flip side to that politically as well. I'm looking at my home state of North Carolina, where 5,800 Republicans in this month of January, since January 6th have changed their registration from Republican to unaffiliated. The state party is losing voters and if you're motivated to leave your state party to do something political in January of an off-year, that means you're really motivated and you're really angry. It's, unfortunately, a lesson that Republicans may only learn come next November, not in their primaries, that may intensify that Trump problem that they face.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil in the days after the Capitol insurrection, the RNC re-elected Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel who's a Trump ally. What does that say about how much-- I guess it underscores this point that the GOP is really leaning in to Trump and Trumpism?
Sahil Kapur: Yes, it's still very much Donald Trump's party. We saw that when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a few days ago, went to visit him in Florida, released a photo of him with the former president, talked about how Trump has committed to helping Republicans win the House majority, which again, as Doug pointed out, is the overriding priority of much of what happens here.
There's a separate controversy involving a Congresswoman who has said a lot of inflammatory and conspiratorial things, her name is Marjorie Taylor Greene who is also invoking former President Trump as a supporter of hers and essentially signaling to leadership that, "Don't you dare cross me because I have the support of Donald Trump." He is still the kingmaker in the party.
He is no longer has the bully pulpit in the White House. He no longer has his Twitter feed, which is his preferred mode of communication, but he still looms large over the party and the voters still have a passionate connection to him. I want to make one little point on your earlier question. Why did those 10 House Republicans vote to impeach the president? One of the reasons is all 10 of them ran ahead of President Trump in their district. They feel insulated to an extent and they also believe that they have independent brands that can help them at home.
Tanzina Vega: Doug, we're talking about how frightened, I guess is one word to say, a lot of the GOP are for they're holding onto their political positions, afraid to turn away from constituents who are bathed in the glory of their former president here; refuse to let go of that. My question to you Doug is, why don't these folks leave government and go make money in the private sector? Why are they holding on so tightly to this ideology which is, in fact, appearing to tear the country apart?
Doug Heye: Yes, it's a very good question. I actually asked a pretty similar question of that to a member I've known for a long, long time who voted against impeachment and said, basically, why is this worth being a ranking member of a subcommittee? Or if you get back the majority chair of a subcommittee. Members of Congress aren't happy, Capitol Hill was not a really great workplace, I'd tell you.
My experiences there I had a great boss, but it was miserable because we were going through things like shutdowns and constant fighting with your own team to where you didn't have time to worry about fighting with Nancy Pelosi because you had to shore up your own side constantly. That member of Congress was Eric Cantor and he's a cautionary tale for a lot of these Republicans who are scared of if they do what they see is the right thing that they're going to lose. I would tell you the fact that Eric Cantor wanted to do something on immigration was a contributing factor to his loss and it's why immigration reform never happened in Congress since then in 2014; that's been six-plus years now.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil how do we explain that? I mean, the idea that there are members of Congress in the GOP who are choosing to stay in these roles, choosing to stay in this position when they could easily go into the private sector or into consulting and make a number of different career moves that wouldn't have them essentially in fear of a political party or of certain constituents.
Sahil Kapur: Look at who is retiring and who has retired in recent years, people in the House Republican conference who are known to be workhorses, who are known to be interested in getting things done, many of them have left. Greg Walden is one example, the former chairman of the energy and commerce committee. Other figures like Pat Tiberi have retired, previously a close ally to the former speaker, John Boehner understood as someone who is respected in the conference.
There are a lot of people who were there to get things done, who were policy-minded, who have decided to leave, not all of them, but many of them. This moment in politics is a very good time for show horses who want to spend a lot of time on right-wing media and maybe boost their personal profile and collect social media followers. This is a very good time for them because that's the political moment that they're in right now, but for those who are more policy-minded, who were more interested in getting things done through the hard work of compromise, this is a pretty dark political moment.
Tanzina Vega: Sahil, I'm wondering also there are rumblings, I don't know how real they are right now that there could be, and we've heard this many times in our political paths, that there could be the emergence of a third party here. Are you hearing anything like that? Is it still too early to even think about that?
Sahil Kapur: I think rumblings is fair mainly because they're emanating from former President Trump, but my view on this is I'm highly skeptical because there's always some talk of a third party or the potential for a third party, given that the two major parties are so unpopular, but there are many reasons it doesn't happen. The single biggest one is negative partisanship, voters dislike one party strongly enough to vote for their opposition, and having two major parties only entrenches that trend, but the one caveat to this is Donald Trump.
If he were to decide that he wants to fully throw his support behind the third party, they seem to be testing out potential names for that. If he decides he wants to do that, then I think the Republicans are in a world of trouble because he will take a big chunk of that party's base with him and it's unclear how much of a future Republicans would have then. Frankly, I think that's one of the major reasons you see party leaders and lawmakers and operatives eager not to alienate him and one of the reasons that he is on track at this point to being acquitted. If he were to be significantly and sharply disowned by the Republican Party, that would only raise his odds of wanting to start a third party.
Tanzina Vega: Doug, we're not just talking about the political calculus that a lot of lawmakers are making, but this really happened. A Capitol insurrection happened live on national television on January 6 in the afternoon. Americans and people across the country and the world were watching what was happening. If there is a failure to convict the president for any role in this, does that, Doug, further embolden some of the radical groups that we saw involved in that Capitol insurrection who the FBI and the CIA are already saying are a serious problem to our national security?
Doug Heye: To be honest, I don't know the answer to that and that's because one thing that a lot of Republicans have said is that going through a second impeachment process is divisive. I agree it's divisive. Now, I think [crosstalk]
Tanzina Vega: Well, Doug, I just got to push back on that. How is it divisive though?
Doug Heye: If I can finish. I think it's a necessary division. We have to show that there are real punishments when you do something wrong. I'm not a parent, but every parent that I know does not punish their child for doing something wrong because the kid's not going to like the punishment, but we need to be mindful that it's very clear that there could be a further adverse reaction to this. It's part of why the Capitol is still under a total lockdown and you still have national guards’ members patrolling that perimeter.
I think it's unclear, which is going to cause a bigger problem with that Trump base. If people are going to break the law, they need to be put in jail. There's no question about that. The impeachment process is entirely political. It's not a legal process. It wasn't designed to be. I worry that without a conviction, we also send a message to any future president that as long as you do something in your closing days to pick an idea, that's not hypothetical anymore, shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue that you can do that as long as you do it late enough, that's a terrible signal to send.
Tanzina Vega: We got to be watching very closely. Doug Heye is communications expert who's had positions in the House, Senate, RNC, and the George W. Bush administration. Sahil Kapur is a national political reporter for NBC News. Thanks to you both for being with us.
Doug Heye: Good to join you.
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