WASHINGTON – Sitting at his desk on the Senate floor Thursday evening, Sen. Lamar Alexander took a break from his note-taking and flipped through a book he brought with him as both sides made their case during President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
He leaned back and scanned the pages of “Impeachment: An American History,” in which four experts chronicled previous times U.S. presidents have faced impeachment.
Alexander had a front-row seat to the current proceedings, listening intently to the arguments made over dozens of hours and several weeks. But the clock was ticking and he was ready to address the issue that had unexpectedly thrust the 79-year-old retiring senator from Tennessee into the center of the trial: whether to support Democrats’ call for witnesses, notably Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, which most of his GOP colleagues in the Republican-controlled Senate opposed.
Having had the history of impeachment at his fingertips, Alexander said the lack of bipartisan support in the Democratic-led House impeachment process against Trump “struck” him. Had even a few House Republicans voted in favor, he might have viewed the case differently.
But, “we were all a long way from that here,” he said during an interview Friday with USA TODAY in a small, hideaway office Alexander uses in the Capitol.
The senator said he believed the House proved its case that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid last year in part to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals, notably former Vice President Joe Biden. But that act, while “inappropriate,” was not impeachable, he said.
The impeachment book Alexander relied on for perspective was published in 2018, months before revelations about Trump’s efforts to squeeze Ukraine became the subject of an impeachment inquiry.
Since then, one of the authors, Vanderbilt Political Science Professor Jon Meacham, has joined more than 2,000 experts in signing a letter calling the president’s pressure on Ukraine and his ensuing obstruction of Congress “lawless,” “brazen,” and worthy of impeachment.
A different impeachment than Clinton’s
The political circumstances surrounding the December 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton over his sexual conduct with a White House intern were different from today.
Twenty-one years ago, the Senate was controlled by Clinton’s political opponents in the Republican party, giving the president little chance of influencing the process. This time, Trump’s allies run the Senate and are coordinating his defense with the White House.
“Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, said in December.
Two of the four counts against Clinton were rejected in the House because enough Republicans defected on both to defeat them. One of the articles was approved when a handful of Democrats joined most Republicans in voting for it.
Democrats alone voted to impeach Trump on both articles that came before the House, which Alexander considered a problem.
“I was reminded during the arguments of how the founders, James Madison particularly, felt there should never ever be a wholly partisan impeachment,” he said, pointing to presentations by Trump’s counsel.
The rules the Senate adopted in January to hold Trump’s impeachment trial also are different than Clinton’s. Republicans set a time limit on follow-up arguments that were not imposed during the Clinton impeachment.
Abuse of power ‘doesn’t mean anything’
Alexander was not in Congress during the Clinton impeachment. During his three terms in Washington, he’s built a reputation as an “institutionalist,” a measured voice driven more by tradition and fairness than partisanship. A framed draft of the speech he made during the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2013 occupies a prominent space on the wall of his hideaway office as well as a photo of him delivering the address.
Democrats were hopeful that Alexander would at least be open to gathering more information and pushing back against Trump’s demands for a fast trial. He was viewed as the potential make-or-break vote over whether witnesses would be heard from in the trial.
Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee who served as Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, said he had concerns with the abuse of power charge because it was too vague. But he said Trump should not have leveraged military aid to try to get the investigation.
“I think it was a mistake … I think he shouldn’t have done it,” But he added, “abuse of power is such a vague term. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Alexander argued that the president’s conduct simply did not meet the high standards to remove him from office.
“We’re pretty accustomed in our everyday life to being able to distinguish between things that are inappropriate and things that deserve capital punishment,” he said. “When you don’t give capital punishment to somebody who left the scene of an accident, you disapprove of what they did. You may penalize them in the next election, but you don’t throw them out of office, and tell the American people they can’t vote for him in the election that’s already underway.”
He said the arguments that settled his mind were threefold. He worried about the dangers of impeachment being wholly partisan; he feared lowering the bar for an impeachable offense; and he was concerned about the proximity to the 2020 election.
“It was gradual. There were some points that made a difference to me,” Alexander said. “I made the decision gradually during the week. I did it the way I think a juror or a judge is supposed to make it.”
‘The people should decide’
The ramifications of Alexander’s decision will likely last beyond Trump’s trial. As he prepares to retire from the Senate at the end of the year, he understands his vote will be part of his legacy in Congress.
“I hope what they’ll remember is I listened to carefully, insisted that we heard the case, and did what I thought was right,” he said, noting that his legacy was not over and he still was working on legislation to lower healthcare costs, make it easier to attend college and restore the national parks.
He said that throughout the trial, he has thought about his mentor, former Sen. Howard Barker, who played a pivotal role in the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, asked the iconic question: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
“I always think about Howard Baker’s example because he was such an extraordinary senator and person. And I wouldn’t presume to say what he would have done, but I think what he would want me to do is what I did,” Alexander said.
He said he didn’t hear from the White House or feel pressure from his colleagues or from McConnell, who he’s known for 50 years.
“He knows better than to try to tell me how to vote,” Alexander said.
Alexander did, however, get a lot of emails from those landing on both sides of this issue, telling him in “impassioned terms” what he should do.
“There wasn’t any way I could, you know, maneuver my way through that, so the only way I could do it was just listen and make decisions,” he said. “And what I decided was, you did it. You shouldn’t have done it. But under the Constitution, the people should decide when the President does something that’s simply inappropriate. That’s for the voters.”
Contributing: Ledge King