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Republicans feel anxious and adrift defending Trump

Senate majority meader Mitch McConnell, Republican fromKentucky. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)Jose Luis Magana/FR159526 AP via AP

WASHINGTON — Republican senators are lost and adrift as the impeachment inquiry enters its second month, navigating the grave threat to President Trump largely in the dark, frustrated by the absence of a credible case to defend his conduct, and anxious about the historic reckoning that likely awaits them.

Recent days have delivered the most damaging testimony yet about Trump and his advisers commandeering Ukraine policy for the president’s personal political goals, which his allies on Capitol Hill sought to undermine by storming the deposition room and condemning the inquiry as secretive and corrupt. Those theatrics belie the deepening unease many Republicans now say they feel — particularly those in the Senate who are dreading having to weigh their conscience against their political calculations in deciding whether to convict or acquit Trump should the Democratic-controlled House impeach the president.


In hushed conversations over the past week, GOP senators lamented that the fast-expanding probe is fraying their party, which remains completely in Trump’s grip. They voiced exasperation at the expectation that they defend the president against the troublesome picture that has been painted, with neither convincing arguments from the White House nor confidence that something worse won’t soon be discovered.

‘‘It feels like a horror movie,’’ said one veteran Republican senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the consensus.

The Republican Party’s strategy is being directed almost entirely by the frenzied impulses of Trump, who has exhibited fits of rage over the Democrats’ drive to remove him from office for abuse of power.

‘‘I did nothing wrong,’’ Trump told reporters Friday. ‘‘This is a takedown of the Republican Party.’’

Although Senator Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah, has been a loud dissenter, he has been speaking for himself as opposed to acting as a frontman for some silent caucus of like-minded Republicans, according to people familiar with the dynamic. Most GOP senators have been taking cues from majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, whose paramount concern has been maintaining his party’s control of the chamber in next year’s election.


‘‘They’ve decided that they’re going to take it all grudgingly — and privately, perhaps, in disgust — but they’re not going to give up the farm,’’ said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the American Conservative Union. But, he added, ‘‘It’s been piling on, piling on, piling on, and I see defense fatigue on behalf of the Republicans in the Congress.’’

Trump and his allies have strained to focus the debate on the process, but Republican officials have struggled to answer for the substance of the startling statements made by the growing list of credible witnesses from the national security and diplomatic realms.

‘‘There’s frustration. It feels to everyone like they’re just digging a hole and making it worse. It just never ends. . . . It’s a total [expletive] show,’’ said one Republican strategist who has been advising a number of top senators and who, like several others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

McConnell, who has shared related concerns in private conversations with other senators, has been preparing for a possible Senate impeachment trial.

McConnell remains engaged with Trump but has a mixed view of the president’s advisers, several Republicans said, noting that he misses his productive working relationship with former White House counsel Donald McGahn and is ‘‘less enamored’’ with his successor, Pat Cipollone, according to a McConnell ally. A Senate GOP aide said McConnell and Cipollone have a good working relationship.


As they went about their work at the Capitol this past week, many Senate Republicans were all but mute when reporters asked questions about impeachment — a stark snapshot of a party rattled not only by the House inquiry but also by Trump’s removal of US troops from northern Syria; his decision, later retracted, to host next year’s Group of Seven summit at his Florida golf resort; and his claim that the investigation into him amounted to a ‘‘lynching.’’

‘‘I’m a juror and I’m comfortable not speaking,’’ Senator James Risch, Republican from Idaho, said. Pressed again for comment, he reiterated, ‘‘I said I’m comfortable not speaking.’’

‘‘I’d be a juror, so I have no comment,’’ Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said.

‘‘I don’t need a strategy for impeachment because I may be a juror someday,’’ Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said.

For Republicans, the political conundrum is a problem of their own making, argued William Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution. ‘‘They normalized a president whose conduct they are now being asked to judge as so abnormal as to warrant his removal from office,’’ he said.