As a Post-Impeachment Trump Pushes the Limits, Republicans Say Little
WASHINGTON — On a day when President Trump congratulated the attorney general for overruling career prosecutors in favor of the lighter prison sentence he sought for a longtime friend, Senate Republicans agreed on one thing: Reining in a president emboldened by the impeachment acquittal they orchestrated is not on their to-do list.
“Kind of immaterial,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said on Wednesday, waving off the question of whether the president or his allies at the Justice Department may have interfered with the sentencing of Roger J. Stone Jr., Mr. Trump’s longtime associate.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he was not “losing any sleep” over the departure of the four prosecutors who had handled the case and withdrew in protest on Tuesday, having assured himself the president did nothing wrong.
Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, refused to broach the topic: “I’m not going to have this conversation right now,” he said, ducking into the Senate subway on his way to the Capitol.
In the week since the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Mr. Trump of two impeachment charges, lawmakers in his party have watched as he has purged key players in the case against him, including the ambassador to the European Union and two White House National Security Council aides, and put in motion plans to banish others he considers insufficiently loyal. They have listened as he has called for one of those officials, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, to be investigated by the Pentagon.
They have read his tweets and heard his comments heaping scorching criticism on the Justice Department for “a horrible and very unfair” attempt to put Mr. Stone in prison for seven to nine years based on a conviction for lying to Congress and trying to block witness testimony. Mr. Trump cheered on William P. Barr, the attorney general, for intervening, while castigating the federal judge overseeing the case.
And they have been forced to reckon with the fact that, far from obscuring his actions or offering innocent explanations, Mr. Trump has been open and unapologetic about his efforts to take revenge on his perceived enemies and assist those he considers loyal.
The warning sirens may be blaring from Democrats and Justice Department veterans. But having expressed confidence just last week that the impeachment trial might chasten him going forward, Republican senators now appear unwilling to grapple with the president who emerged: an emboldened Mr. Trump determined to tighten his grip on the levers of power.
Asked if Mr. Trump appeared to have learned any positive lessons from the impeachment saga that threatened his presidency and prompted her and some others Republicans to criticize his conduct, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska paused on Wednesday to choose her words carefully.
“There haven’t been strong indicators this week that he has,” she said.
In the Oval Office on Wednesday, Mr. Trump insisted he had in fact grown wiser based on the impeachment experience — but not in ways that many in his party were hoping for. “That the Democrats are crooked,” he told reporters when asked about the lessons he took from the episode. “They got a lot of crooked things going. That they’re vicious. That they shouldn’t have brought impeachment.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans offered up general platitudes about the principle that presidents should stay out of pending legal matters. But none asked for an explanation of Mr. Trump’s handling of Mr. Stone’s case, or suggested his actions warranted further scrutiny.
Instead, after three years of provocations, attacks on political opponents and allies alike, and abrupt policy reversals, Republican lawmakers fell back on a set of neutral responses they have found crucial to navigating the choppy waters of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Privately, many in the party say it is just often not worth it to challenge him in the open. Better to try lobby the White House quietly, like a handful of Republican senators did last week when they tried to intervene to stop Mr. Trump from firing Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who testified in the House impeachment hearings. But their entreaties did not work.
Matters of foreign policy have often prompted more public disagreements, like a planned vote on Thursday to curtail Mr. Trump’s war powers, but they are few and far between.
The handful of moderate Republicans who have broken with the president on matters of consequence — including in recent weeks to criticize his pressure campaign on Ukraine undergirding the House’s impeachment case — are reluctant to to do so again and again.
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, seemed to grow frustrated on Wednesday when reporters pressed her to reconcile Mr. Trump’s recent actions with her assertion last week that he would be “much more cautious in the future” after having been impeached.
“My vote to acquit the president was not based on predicting his future behavior,” Ms. Collins said. She added, “I think the president would be better served by never commenting on pending federal investigations.”
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who chastised Mr. Trump for his pressure on Ukraine, declined to pass any direct judgment on the president’s actions since.
“The sentencing is in the hands of the courts, which should make an appropriate decision,” he said. “And politics should never play a part in law enforcement. So that’s what I have to say about that.”
Even Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the sole Republican who voted to convict Mr. Trump last week, said he did not have time to get into the particulars of the case, saying he trusted the judge in Mr. Stone’s case to “do what is right.”
“I can’t begin to spend time discussing the president’s tweets,” he said. “That would be a full-time job.”
Democrats have watched with increasing desperation. The House still holds subpoena power, and can use its control of the federal spending process to try to curb some unwanted excesses by the administration. But the chamber just used the Constitution’s most powerful tool for executive accountability, impeachment, and failed to win a conviction.
In the Senate, where Republicans are in control, some Democrats have taken to outright pleading with colleagues to speak up. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, interrupted a Banking Committee meeting Wednesday morning to implore his colleagues to stop what he called Mr. Trump’s “retribution tour.”
“We cannot give him a permanent license to turn the presidency and the executive branch into his own personal vengeance operation,” Mr. Brown said. “If we say nothing — and I include everyone in this committee, including myself — it will get worse. His behavior will get worse.”
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to convene emergency hearings on the Justice Department matter.
But Mr. Graham ruled it out, saying he had sought an explanation from Mr. Barr’s office about the decision to change the sentencing recommendation for Mr. Stone, and found it satisfactory.
“Should the president stay out of cases? Yeah, absolutely. He should not be commenting on cases in the system,” Mr. Graham said. “If I thought he’d done something that changed the outcome inappropriately, I’d be the first to say.”
“I’m comfortable the system is working,” he added.
Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, chalked the Stone imbroglio up to the president’s social media habits.
“This is a situation where the tweet was very problematic,” he said, hastening to add that tweeting was the president’s right and that all signs he had seen pointed to the situation having been handled properly at the Justice Department.
Other elected Republicans professed a loose command of the facts or sidestepped questions by accusing reporters of distorting them.
Asked whether Mr. Trump had been emboldened since his acquittal, Mr. Cornyn dismissed the idea as a “narrative,” declining to elaborate as he disappeared into a committee room.
Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, said he was “still unfamiliar” with “all the particulars” of the situation around Mr. Stone’s sentencing, but added: “There’s no legal issue here. It’s just a question of propriety.”
Some Republicans did not even bother trying to explain away the president’s actions.
“I do not have an opinion on that,” declared Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader.
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