President Trump has an idiosyncratic view of what he calls “rights,” which he seems to conflate with any power, mechanism, or maneuver that will allow him to avoid legal jeopardy. In a letter sent last Tuesday to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, and to several committee chairs, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, said that Trump would not comply with requests from the House’s impeachment inquiry, owing to his duty to “preserve the rights” of future Presidents. The inquiry itself is unconstitutional, the letter charged—although the Constitution expressly gives the House the right to conduct it. On Wednesday, Trump said that he would consider coöperating only “if they give us our rights,” echoing a tweet from the previous day, in which he said that he couldn’t let a key witness, Gordon Sondland, the U. S. Ambassador to the European Union, be deposed by congressional investigators because he “would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away.”
By “Republican’s rights,” the President may just be referring to himself and to his grand delusion that he has unmatched prerogatives. If he thinks that his party can simply halt all investigations into his behavior, that’s wrong, too—wrong even if the Republicans had a majority in the House, and even though they do have a majority in the Senate. Republicans in both chambers are entitled to shape the process. They can, of course, defend Trump, but they can also question and confront him. One of the crucial issues in the impeachment drama is whether they will do so.
They might start by objecting to a President’s asking a foreign leader to investigate the family of one of his opponents. Trump has more or less bragged about doing that in a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, of Ukraine, regarding Joe Biden and the business dealings of his son Hunter. Instead, congressional Republicans have either remained silent or tried to show that it’s the Democrats who are at fault. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, said on “Fox and Friends” that “more people in America want to investigate what Biden has done with his son than want to impeach this President.” Actually, a Fox News survey last week showed that fifty-one per cent of voters think that Trump should be “impeached and removed” from office. (Trump tweeted, in response, “Whoever their Pollster is, they suck.”)
If articles of impeachment are passed, which seems increasingly likely, it will take sixty-seven votes in the Senate to convict Trump, which means that at least twenty of the fifty-three Republicans will have to walk away from him. That number still seems distant. The Washington Post keeps a tally: as of last week, no Republican senators publicly supported impeachment, thirty-nine were unequivocally behind Trump (for example, calling the investigation a “witch hunt”), and only fourteen expressed some concern about the allegations. Mitt Romney, of Utah, has been the most critical; Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, who has broken with the President before, said that some aspects of Trump’s call with Zelensky are “terrible,” but also that the House investigation is a “partisan clown show.”
Yet, in the same week, Republicans were as openly angry with Trump as they have ever been when he announced, after a phone call with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that the United States would step aside as Turkey launched a military offensive in northern Syria. The move was seen by many in both parties as a betrayal of Kurdish militias that have been a valuable partner in the fight against isis, but have long been targeted by Turkey. Air strikes began within days of the announcement. Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, ping-ponged between saying that the Administration had “shamelessly abandoned” the Kurds and pledging to hold a hearing to allow Rudy Giuliani, the President’s volatile lawyer, to lay out his conspiracy theories related to Ukraine. Two days later, two of Giuliani’s associates were arrested on criminal charges alleging that they had tried to funnel foreign money into American election campaigns.
It’s as though any dissent on matters of policy requires a greater show of loyalty on impeachment. In this, the Republicans’ intended audience is not only Trump but his electoral base. Senator Mitch McConnell, who is up for reëlection next year, sharply criticized Trump’s decision on Syria, but also ran an online campaign ad in which he claimed that impeachment is proceeding because “a left-wing mob” has Pelosi in its clutches. “The way that impeachment stops” is with “a Senate majority, with me as majority leader,” McConnell said. “But I need your help: please contribute before the deadline!”
Trump relies on the appearance of a united party to validate his ever more corrosive policies—and his tirades—with voters. If that unity falters, things could move quickly. Yet what’s remarkable is that more Republican senators who are not facing reëlection, or are secure in their seats, have not spoken out as a matter of principle. Some may be boxed in by positions they staked out earlier in Trump’s Presidency. In the course of the Mueller investigation, many congressional Republicans demanded that the Justice Department aggressively investigate the investigation’s origins, which, they suggested, would show that Trump had been wronged. Did they know that this pursuit might take the form of Trump’s asking Zelensky for “a favor” regarding a phantom Democratic Party server, or Attorney General William Barr’s playing detective in Rome and London? Probably not, but, with Trump, they had good reason to fear something extreme.
That experience should be a warning to Republicans defending Trump at a time when the full extent of his recklessness is only just being revealed. His refusal to participate won’t put an end to the impeachment inquiry; it will only initiate more fights about subpoenas and witnesses, defiance of court orders, and obstruction of justice. This will all go to the heart of Congress’s right to conduct oversight, and may provide separate grounds for impeachment. (One of the draft articles of impeachment in Watergate concerned Richard Nixon’s failure to honor subpoenas.) Trump has already referred to the impeachment inquiry as a coup. This is not a moment for Republican legislators to stand by and watch as a constitutional crisis unfolds. That is something they have no right to do.
Amy Davidson Sorkin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014.