(CNN) – To Senate Minority Whip John Thune, former President Donald Trump’s actions ahead of the deadly Capitol riot are totally indefensible.
“No — not at all,” the No. 2 Republican said when asked if he can defend what Trump did. “The way he handled the post-election, both in terms of his public statements and things that he tried to do to change the outcome, no.”
But like other Republicans, Thune has no clear answer to this key question: What should they do to Trump after he lied to his supporters about the election being stolen, promoted the January 6 rally in DC and urged demonstrators to go to the Capitol, which they later rampaged in a deadly riot?
“Well, that’s a good question,” said Thune, who faces reelection in South Dakota next year. “One way, obviously, would be in a court of law.”
With the impeachment trial for Trump set to begin February 9, Senate Republicans are criticizing him without doing anything about his actions, hoping to put distance between themselves and the former President without casting any votes that could cause a backlash from Trump and his fervent supporters. Many say something should be done about what Trump did — but just not by them.
When asked about Trump’s actions in relation to the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of GOP leadership, said: “I’m not going to defend them.”
“I think he’s been held accountable in the court of public opinion already,” Cornyn said when asked if the Senate should take any actions, arguing it would set a “dangerous precedent” to convict a former President.
The rhetoric showcases the split between House and Senate Republicans as the party struggles to find its voice after the tumultuous Trump era. Many House Republicans remain staunch Trump defenders, saying he did nothing wrong and shouldn’t be blamed for the violence that occurred at the Capitol.
“President Trump did not cause the attack on the Capitol on January 6,” freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial Georgia Republican, told her supporters this week.
A majority of House Republicans backed the efforts to throw out President Joe Biden’s electoral victories in two key states, while just a handful did in the Senate. After House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California walked back his criticism of Trump and made a jaunt to South Florida on Thursday to meet with the former President, he went out of his way to proclaim they were united in their fight to take back the House next year. Back in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, made clear he hasn’t spoken to Trump since December 15, and it’s unclear if he ever will again.
Yet with the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection facing a sharp backlash from the right, Senate Republicans are well aware that they would face the same fate if they voted to convict next month. And McConnell, who has privately told associates he thinks Trump committed an impeachable offense, refused to say so publicly when CNN asked him on Tuesday — and he later voted with fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul on a procedural motion this week aimed at dismissing the trial on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional.
Just five Republicans voted to kill Paul’s procedural motion. Paul told CNN that he informed the Republican cloakroom the night before the vote about his plans, a move that allowed most Republicans to quickly align themselves behind their message that the Senate has no role in holding a trial once a president has left office.
The five who voted against Paul’s effort included one who is retiring (Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania), three who either haven’t said if they voted for Trump in November or voted for someone else (Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ben Sasse of Nebraska) and another who voted to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial (Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah). Several of them argued that there is a precedent for the Senate trying former federal office holders, a key point that Democratic impeachment managers plan to make during the trial.
But with that vote earlier this week, both sides agree there’s virtually no path to the 67 votes needed to convict Trump, and also bar him from office, given that Democrats hold just 50 seats in the chamber.
“I’ve already condemned them,” GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said when asked if he could defend Trump’s actions.
Asked what Republicans should do about it, Cassidy said: “There is something in our nation called due process and there are things called kangaroo courts. We don’t need a kangaroo court.”
Sen. Mike Braun initially signed on to objecting to Arizona’s Electoral College results but then dropped that effort after rioters broke into the Capitol. Yet he also is doing the Senate GOP dance: criticizing Trump while indicating he won’t convict.
“I think most would have a lot of trouble saying there was no connection” between Trump’s actions and the deadly violence, Braun said. But the Indiana Republican contended he was worried about convicting someone who’s no longer in office. “To me, it’s a terrible precedent to set. He’s not here, he’s a private citizen.”
Asked how they should hold Trump accountable now, Braun said: “I think he’s going to be held accountable in the way that people sort him out with whatever he intends to do in the future.”