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How Trump Has Kept Solid GOP Support Through Impeachment

The Wall Street Journal. logoThe Wall Street Journal. 19/01/2020 Andrew Duehren, Catherine Lucey, Gabriel T. Rubin
a group of people standing in a room © erik s lesser/Shutterstock When revelations about President Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine first started dribbling into the public in late September and early October, Republicans were caught off guard.

Some members of the GOP criticized Mr. Trump’s request for Ukraine to open investigations that benefited him politically, while others sought to avoid the topic altogether. As many as 20 House Republicans initially were open to supporting Mr. Trump’s impeachment, according to Rep. Pete King (R., N.Y.), a retiring member from a competitive district who quickly made up his mind that Mr. Trump’s conduct wasn’t impeachable.

Now, as the GOP-led Senate begins the impeachment trial for Mr. Trump, the Republican Party is in lockstep behind the president of their party. Every House Republican voted against the two articles of impeachment the Senate will consider, with the party even luring a New Jersey Democrat, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, to join their ranks. While a handful of GOP senators have defied the White House’s wishes on whether to allow witnesses in the trial, no Senate Republican has publicly signaled a willingness to remove the president from office.

The unity is the byproduct not only of a White House charm offensive this fall and widespread Republican concerns about the fairness of the impeachment process, but more broadly the president’s personal powers of persuasion and his raw political power over the party, fueled by an intensely loyal base of GOP voters. As has been the case since Mr. Trump ascended to the GOP throne, Republicans who dared step out of line faced his Twitter outrage, meeting the wrath of the president’s base.

The stark tribalism has led those who want long-term futures in the party to get in line behind the president and those who have had enough to retire quietly without risking a noisy and disruptive exit. Twenty-six House Republicans have announced they are leaving the House since the 2018 midterm elections, when the party’s moderate wing took major casualties as Democrats won the majority. Not one of those retirees, including several moderates, voted against the party line on impeachment.

The opening weeks of the inquiry left some on Capitol Hill frustrated about the lack of a centralized response from the White House as House Republican leadership worked to provide members with more information about the inquiry’s progress. Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, and former Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh joined the White House in November to focus on impeachment communications strategy.

“There were frustrations on Capitol Hill about the lack of coordination initially and what the messaging and plan was and that was solved within a matter of weeks,” said Ron Bonjean, a former spokesman for House and Senate Republican leadership who is close to the White House.

The White House began courting Republican members of Congress, holding a round of lunches at the White House, taking lawmakers on Air Force One and opening up Camp David for weekend getaways. Mr. Trump met with over 120 House Republicans and nearly all 53 Senate Republicans.

Republicans also focused their fire on how Democrats were proceeding with the impeachment inquiry, recasting the investigation as a familiar partisan conflict.

Rep. Francis Rooney, a moderate Republican from Florida, announced his plan to retire in October, one day after criticizing the White House for its interactions with Ukraine. But he stuck with the president on the House’s impeachment votes, and he said the speed with which Democrats pursued the inquiry rubbed him the wrong way.

“They were conducting more of a political process and they wanted to get it out of the way,” Mr. Rooney said. “There were several people like me who thought it was disturbing but didn’t rise to the level of impeachment.”

Democrats said they were following precedent for the process and dismissed Republican criticism as intended to distract from the underlying substance.

“This has absolutely nothing to do with politics,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said in December. “It is about the Constitution of the United States, the oath of office we take to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. It is about the president not honoring his oath of office.”

Mr. King, the New York Republican who broke with his party in 1998 to vote against impeaching then-President Bill Clinton, said criticisms of the process helped to unify Republicans.

“The more the impeachment hearings went forward, I would say the more hard-line the Republicans got, I would say people who were on the fence were really pushed into defending Trump,” he said.

Republicans who stuck with Mr. Trump were rewarded. After Rep. Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.) repeatedly attacked Democrats’ impeachment inquiry in televised hearings, her re-election campaign announced it had raised more than $3.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2019 in what her campaign said was a record for the congressional seat. Nearly 50,000 of the donors were new, according to the campaign.

The same day that Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.)—a moderate who has opposed Mr. Trump in the past—signaled to party leaders that he would vote against opening an inquiry in late October, he attended a fundraiser for Republican congressmen hosted by Mr. Trump at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

On his way out the door, he was stopped by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif), who asked him to come upstairs to tell Mr. Trump that he planned to oppose the impeachment inquiry. Mr. McCarthy later tweeted out a photo of Mr. Trump and Mr. Upton smiling with the caption, “Republicans are united!”

With the president’s base firmly against impeachment, opposing the process became such a basic litmus test that the one Republican congressman who supported it, Justin Amash (Mich.), left the party in July to become an Independent.

Trump allies pulled their support for his campaign, and Mr. Trump held a rally in his district the evening of the impeachment vote in December. Mr. Trump tweeted criticism of Mr. Amash the following morning, goading Democrats for losing their chance at a bipartisan impeachment when Mr. Amash left the party.

The unanimity in the House GOP has helped lay the groundwork for Senate Republicans, who will face possibly divisive questions about witnesses and evidence even before they vote on the articles of impeachment. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), a manager during the impeachment of Mr. Clinton, said he helped counsel House GOP leadership on how to best attack the process and provide cover to Republicans during impeachment.

“If there had been even two or three Republicans who broke ranks and voted with the Democrats on that, that would have been picked up by some of the senators who are in brutally competitive races this fall,” he said.

In the Senate, close contact with individual senators, long a hallmark of Mr. Trump’s approach to the party, has helped deliver Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) the votes he will need to pass the rules governing the trial along party lines.

Sen. Mike Braun (R., Ind.) said he thought Mr. Trump had strong Republican support from the start of impeachment, but described the outreach as “good due diligence to make sure you’re communicating with people that are going to be making a decision on the merits of the case.”

Officials attending White House events with lawmakers included acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and legislative-affairs director Eric Ueland as well as Vice President Mike Pence and senior adviser Jared Kushner, depending on their schedules. Mr. Trump hosted the White House lunches, while Mr. Mulvaney and others took House members to Camp David, with the president calling to check in. While impeachment was discussed, other topics were as well, including trade deals, foreign policy and vaping.

While the White House put in the work to sway vulnerable Republicans, many of them reached the conclusion that alienating the Republican base was a bigger political risk than appealing to voters in the middle who disapprove of the president’s conduct.

Last week, Sen. Martha McSally (R., Ariz.) called a CNN reporter a “liberal hack” for asking whether witnesses should be allowed during the Senate’s impeachment trial—and won a favorable tweet from the Trump campaign soliciting donations for her tough election in a purple state this year.

“Even in competitive states there’s little incentive to break with the president,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who lost his South Florida district in the 2018 midterms to a Democrat.

“If a member broke with the president on this issue,” he added, “they’d be shouted at in public, approached in restaurants, the gym, and people would be very angry.”

Write to Andrew Duehren at andrew.duehren@wsj.com , Catherine Lucey at catherine.lucey@wsj.com and Gabriel T. Rubin at gabriel.rubin@wsj.com

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