A Letter to the Great-Grandchildren of the Senate Republicans of 2020:
Dear Descendants of the 2020 Republican Senate,
No doubt you’ve seen some of the hoopla over the recent 50th anniversary of the Senate “trial” of then-President Donald J. Trump. No president had ever been elected before with such a trail of sexual assault, business crimes, and personal character shortcomings as Trump. When he was ultimately held to account for seeking the aid of a foreign nation in his own re-election efforts, he was impeached by the U.S. House and those charges were sent over to the Senate for what the Founders thought would be an actual trial.
History records two previous such trials. At the time of Trump’s trial, only President Johnson and President Clinton had endured such a tribunal. Johnson was caught up in the dramatic politics following the Civil War, and Clinton lied about a sex act. Both men were acquitted after trials that included evidence presentations and witnesses, similar to, well, every other trial in the U.S.
Trump was accused of a far worse set of violations than Johnson or Clinton. Indeed, he was charged with a violation so significant — working with foreign countries for his own benefit — that the Founders explicitly warned of the dangers of such actions and the appropriateness of impeachment.
So how did what happened way back in 2020 actually go down? Well, I’m afraid I have bad news about your senatorial grandparents. You see, the Republican Party had been, for decades and decades, a political party that stood for something. Even when you disagreed with their views and positions, you couldn’t really attack the GOP itself as evil. The Republicans of the "before-time" worked for smaller government and less spending. They cared about the debt and deficit. The Republicans before 2020 worked hard to help protect us from our overseas adversaries, especially the Soviet Union and later Russia.
Then came Trump…
Trump’s win in 2016 with the help of the Russians, even though he received 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, really changed the Republican game plan. No doubt you’ve read the many books and articles that came out in the years following Trump’s sham trial and “acquittal” in the Senate, so you know about how the senators from the GOP acted during the trial. Each day, as the sessions started, the Senate sergeant-at-arms read to them the instruction that they were to remain in their seats and to pay close attention, under threat of imprisonment, as it was their duty, having re-affirmed their oaths to be fair and impartial at the beginning of the process. And yet, we know that the GOP leader of the Senate at that time had already declared — before the trial even started — that he was working with the president to ensure no witnesses or evidence and a quick acquittal, as Trump wanted. It was interesting that all the “defenses” of Trump were technical legal issues. Not a single GOP senator stood up to declare Trump an honorable and honest man, with a good character.
During the testimony by the House managers, many GOP senators broke their oath by leaving the floor. One senator from South Carolina took his leave when a video of him, during the Clinton trial, making the exact opposite point about what a “high crime” truly is. Another senator from Tennessee attacked a career military officer with a Purple Heart to his name, suggesting he was not a loyal patriot. She also left the chamber during the trial to do an interview with Fox News.
At one point, 21 of the GOP senators had left the floor, and over the course of a number of votes on procedure, the Republicans voted in lock step with their orders from the White House, including tabling (cancelling) a proposal to let the Chief Justice of the United States (a man with impeccable GOP credentials) play the role of, well, a judge, in the trial. Heck, one senator from Kentucky was seen doing a crossword, sketching the Capitol, and more, though because this senator had already stated before things even started that there was a zero percent chance of conviction, maybe his artistic efforts were not too meaningful. Oh, and one Senator from Idaho stayed nobly in his seat but took a nap.
There were hopes, back then, that perhaps some senators might take their oath seriously, but as you know from the history books, that didn’t happen. There were high hopes for Colorado’s Corey Gardner, given that during the 2016 campaign, he had stated (following the release of the audio of Trump bragging about assaulting women sexually) that Trump should withdraw and that he would never vote for Trump. Sadly, after not holding a single town hall in the two years leading up to the trial, Gardner proved himself to be as afraid of riling Trump’s base as anyone.
Your grandparents likely didn’t fully understand the implications for the future of declaring that a president can ignore congressional subpoenas, refuse to provide witnesses, and basically destroy the idea of congressional oversight. They likely didn’t mean to create an imperial presidency, but they did, and that created turmoil for decades to come.
The history books are clear, illuminating, and unkind to your grandparents during that long ago but critical time. They were more afraid of a bully TV personality than they were loyal to their country. They were too worried about losing their next election. As you know, ironically, most of them did pay a price at the polls. Everything comes out eventually, and as history has judged the GOP Senate of 2020 to have abandoned justice for politics, there is little more to add today.
As we as a nation reflect on those terrible days 50 years ago, we recall the paucity of honor and the lack of back bone. But don’t hate them, they did as they were told, and they just didn’t understand the implications of being lap dogs for a corrupt president.
And that’s a shame.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.