What happened on January 6 of this year, Senator Ben Sasse told me on Monday night, represented “one of the most egregious Article II attacks on Article I in all of U.S. history.”
For Sasse, who was one of only six Republican senators to argue that the impeachment was constitutionally sound, at stake in the trial was nothing less than the integrity of the Constitution itself.
“This is not,” he told me, “really about Donald Trump. It is really about a signal to future office holders about what kind of behavior is appropriate.” After all: “The old meaning — the nonpolitical meaning — of the word impeach, to impeach someone’s character, is to decry certain kinds of behavior.”
Sasse, the junior senator from Nebraska, was among the seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump on “incitement of insurrection” Saturday. In a series of interviews with National Review over several days leading up to that vote, Sasse sought to explain his thinking. The question at hand, he contended on day one of the impeachment trial, should be seen as “chiefly an Article I vs. Article II conflict, not chiefly as a partisan tribal conflict.
“The president is supposed to be not the just barely-smaller-than-King executive figure in the American system,” Sasse told me. “It’s supposed to be an administrative job where you faithfully execute the laws. When you’re affirming the peaceful transition of power and the Article II branch tries to stir people up by sowing more distrust in that, I have a really hard historical time coming up with anything analogous in terms of an Article II attack on the constitutional order. That is an unbelievably egregious attack on a constitutional system.”
Going in, Sasse hoped to strip the proceedings of their partisan hue. “I just believe at the level of principle the pledge that I made when I was running for office,” he said on Monday, in the first of the series of interviews conducted throughout the week, “which is I’ll try to do what I think is the right thing, exercising my judgment. And if it’s only 47 percent possible and I lose, so be it. No single senator is indispensable. It’s the Constitution that’s indispensable.
“One of the questions I try to always ask myself in situations like this,” he added, “is how would I be handling it if it were a Democrat president? I think you’re going to have a bunch of people on our side make pretty strange arguments that they wouldn’t conceivably make . . . if the president in question were a Democrat. I want to try to work against all of that.”
On Saturday, Sasse did just that, as one of just a handful of Republican senators to vote for conviction.
Sasse was keen to note that he had not made up his mind at the outset, and that he regarded his vote affirming the proceedings’ constitutionality as distinct from his eventual vote on the merits. “I come looking for things that could complicate my current understanding of what happened,” he told me on the first day. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that he was starting with a certain understanding of what had happened, and that his understanding had been strengthened by the House managers’ initial presentation. “Trump’s lying about the election outcome is a root cause of this entire event,” he said. “I thought [the House manager’s] argument was pretty dang effective at tying Trump’s lead up to this entire thing.”
As the week unfolded, no evidence showed up to change Sasse’s mind. Indeed, explaining his vote on the floor of the Senate earlier today, he put the case against Trump about as starkly as possible:
President Trump lied that he ‘won the election by a landslide.’ He lied about widespread voter fraud, spreading conspiracy theories despite losing 60 straight court challenges, many of his losses handed down by great judges he nominated. He tried to intimidate the Georgia secretary of state to ‘find votes’ and overturn that state’s election. He publicly and falsely declared that Vice President Pence could break his constitutional oath and simply declare a different outcome. The president repeated these lies when summoning his crowd — parts of which were widely known to be violent — to Capitol Hill to intimidate Vice President Pence and Congress into not fulfilling our constitutional duties. Those lies had consequences.
Nor did the passage of time convince Sasse to view the stakes any differently. “I’ve got a lot of colleagues who talk a lot about wanting to restore Article I,” he reflected on Friday, as the proceedings were wrapping up, “and this seems to me to be the most basic opportunity to restore some Article I prerogatives.” And yet, he lamented, “in that moment, folks are really willing to capitulate to mere tribalism and say, well, he had the right letter behind his name.”
When I asked whether he was worried that a conviction might poison the Senate or divide the country further, Sasse pushed back against the question. “Most of the people that are making what would be the anti-conviction argument,” he told me, “are almost all making pragmatic arguments about unity. I find them very unpersuasive so far because some of the people making those arguments the strongest are the people who also worked against certifying the election.”
As for the comity of the Senate? “I don’t care very much about the next 100 days,” he said, instantly. “I care about the next 100 years.”