Allies of former President Trump are waging an intense pressure campaign aimed at convincing GOP senators to vote against his conviction in next month’s impeachment trial.
The message to wavering GOP senators is that anyone who votes to convict Trump is guaranteeing a tough primary challenge that could end their political career.
The message is directed not only to red-state GOP senators who might be thinking of moving the party away from Trump, but to GOP leaders who might want to break with the president after a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“There are several incumbent Republicans up in 2022 that would be vulnerable in a primary, from Roy Blunt to Todd Young and John Thune and many others,” said one prominent operative in Trump’s orbit. “The last thing these guys need is a pissed off Trump gunning for them.”
The warnings come as Congress is ramping up for an impeachment trial set to begin on Feb. 8.
House Democrats on Monday sent their single impeachment article against Trump to the Senate, officially putting the former president on trial for his role in the deadly mob attack.
Few think a trial will end with Trump’s conviction. This would take at least 17 GOP votes if every Democrat votes to convict, and GOP sources said last week that only five or six GOP senators would likely vote to convict Trump.
Nonetheless, Trump allies are taking nothing for granted.
They are publicly challenging the 10 House Republicans who joined Democrats to impeach Trump, sending an implicit message of what will come to GOP senators who vote to convict.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a top Trump ally, will travel to Wyoming this week to denounce Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who voted to impeach Trump and is the third-ranking House Republican. The trip by a rank-and-file member to criticize a leader of his own House caucus is strikingly unusual and comes amid an effort by pro-Trump House members to remove Cheney from GOP leadership.
Trump’s former strategist Stephen Bannon, who was pardoned by Trump in his last days in office, has been featuring GOP primary challengers on his podcast.
He recently interviewed Tom Norton, the Afghanistan War veteran who is challenging first-term Rep. Pete Meijer (R-Mich.), who voted to impeach Trump. Norton called for the other nine members to be primaried as well.
The threats to the GOP House members, and the vows to go after senators, are intended to convince members such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to oppose convicting Trump.
McConnell has not said how he will vote in the impeachment trial, but there have been reports that he has told associates he believes the president committed impeachable offenses when he told a crowd to march on the Capitol before the riot, which led to five deaths.
“It’s incumbent on party leadership to recognize that and to put their own personal vendettas with Trump aside and to work to unite the party,” the GOP operative said. “The Republican Party will not be a national party for much longer if our representatives in Washington don’t stop disrespecting their voters. So work with Trump to grow the party, or go to war with him and watch it explode in your face. It’s up to you.”
There has also been talk of Trump starting a third party, something associates say is not being actively planned but suggest could become a reality if the GOP breaks further with the former president.
“There’s nothing that’s actively being planned regarding an effort outside of that, but it’s completely up to Republican senators if this is something that becomes more serious,” said Jason Miller, a campaign aide who is now advising Trump on impeachment.
Miller says the president’s plan for now is to work with Republicans to help win back the House and Senate in 2022.
While Trump retains enormous support within the GOP, plenty of Republicans also think he’s leading their party down the drain.
Trump entered power with House and Senate majorities but lost the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020 — after the GOP lost two runoff races in Georgia as Trump was focused on conspiracy theories surrounding his own electoral loss.
Rural voters have come out in force for Trump, but his brand has sullied the GOP image in the suburbs, where women, independents and centrist GOP voters have increasingly abandoned him.
The GOP is also concerned with the suspension of donations by corporations to Republicans after the storming of the Capitol.
It’s unclear how long this will last or whether it will be focused on those lawmakers who backed challenges to the Electoral College, but it is a subject of angst in GOP circles.
“It’s the ultimate challenge,” said veteran GOP operative Ed Rollins, who managed President Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. “You can’t win presidential races losing women by 15 percent. You need the MAGA voters, and 50-plus percent of independents. The Trump coalition doesn’t alone get you there, as proven by 2020 and losing a majority of voters in 2016. Angry, white, non-college males don’t get you there alone. You need to add to Hispanic numbers and clearly close the gap with women.”
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele urged GOP senators to fight without fear of Trump or his base, saying that the former president is weaker than he appears.
“We’re trusting our elected officials to stand up and lead,” he said. “You’ll have a tough primary, but we’ll rally to your support and be behind you if you stand and fight for us now. Don’t be scared off by their threats.”
The announcement Monday by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a pragmatic centrist, that he will retire at the end of the Congress is being seen by some as a sign of the party’s evolution — and that some Bush-era Republicans might no longer see a place for themselves. Portman is a former trade representative and budget director for former President George W. Bush.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) is worried about his party’s future.
“The Republican Party is in disarray, and it’s not a majority party because it’s abandoned the ability to attract the independent vote, especially from educated women and Hispanic voters who are the swing voters in every state,” he said. “The Trump base will be there, but it’s not as critical to building a majority. I think Trump will dissipate on his own anyway, and we’ll be looking back at the invasion of Capitol Hill and asking ourselves why we're the party that allowed that to happen.”