After an expected vote for impeachment in the House of Representatives, the fate of Donald Trump will move to the U.S. Senate, where the prospects for the triumph of Constitutional values are bleak and where GOP stalwarts like Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already violated their oaths of impartial judgment by pledging fealty to the President. Remembering a decades-old historical anecdote provides a faint glimmer of hope.
After the Second World War the dangers of Soviet aggression were real and there were real life spies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But the Red Scare firestorm accelerated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and his legions incinerated reputations and ruined lives of hundreds working in government, academia and the film industry. McCarthy, who would ultimately be censured by the U.S. Senate, ran roughshod over his spineless colleagues, using fear tactics to divide people and exacerbate divisions in this country. A reckless demagogue, he claimed he had lists of subversives and challenged the patriotism of anyone who dared criticize him. Until Senator Margaret Chase Smith.
The freshman Senator from Maine, in her first speech on the floor, declared that “we must not become a nation of mental mutes, blindly following demagogues.” She didn’t “want a Democratic administration ‘whitewash’ or ‘coverup’ any more than … a Republican smear or witch hunt.” She denounced the GOP tactics of exploiting fear for political gain. Six Republican Senators signed onto her Declaration of Conscience.
Who among today’s Republican Senators will step up as did Margaret Chase Smith in 1950? Reports have it that if a vote in today’s U.S. Senate were by secret ballot, 30 GOP Senators would vote to impeach President Trump. (Former Senator Jeff Flake said there are at least 35 who would vote that way.) Twenty are needed to complement the Democrats and Independents to reach the super-majority of 67 needed to remove the President from office. Failure to do so will allow him to claim full exoneration and green-light continued abuses of power, including soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election.
Who among the closet critics would vote their conscience? Three departing Senators – Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi, and Pat Roberts – could conceivably stand up for the balance of powers envisioned in the Constitution. Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Richard Burr have occasionally criticized Trump, but what would you bet on their fulfilling their oaths of office? Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, and Martha McSally are others considered long shots to break with party, but they’re all burdened by political considerations in tight races. Getting to 20 is a heavy lift.
The Senate can write its own rules for a post- impeachment trial. It would take just three Republicans to push for a secret ballot. Three could block approval of Senate rules for the proceedings, making their approval contingent upon inclusion of a secret ballot. If that happened, who knows what a glut of courage might emerge? I fear that nothing will happen unless and until someone with the courage and integrity of a Margaret Chase Smith steps to the podium and insists on a return to conscience and integrity to reclaim the heart of the institution and limit executive imperialism, political corruption and abuse of power.