‘How do you want to be remembered?’ ex-GOP senator asks colleagues ahead of Trump impeachment trial

'These senators won’t always be in office, they’ll retire and they’ll be at home with their conscience and with their grandkids,' says GOP veteran Jeff Flake in appeal to representatives to vote on evidence

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Tuesday 09 February 2021 11:05

Related video: House speaker Nancy Pelosi says Trump impeachment trial will test if Senate shows 'courage' or 'cowardice'

The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump gets underway in the Senate on Tuesday, with the 45th president of the United States accused of “incitement of insurrection” over the 6 January riot at the US Capitol by his supporters.

While the House Democrat impeachment managers serving as the prosecution intend to argue that Mr Trump’s own rhetoric was responsible for whipping up the mob, whose violent actions in protest at the certification of November’s election results led to five deaths, the vast majority of their Republican counterparts insist the process is unconstitutional given that the president has since left office.

But despite the Democrats looking unlikely to secure the 17 GOP votes needed to secure a conviction that would prevent Mr Trump running for elected office again, former Arizona senator Jeff Flake insists the process remains meaningful.

Follow the latest from the impeachment proceedings in our liveblog

Asked by Justin Webb on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether the Democrats had any hope of securing a surprise conviction, the Republican admitted: “I’ll be surprised if we’re surprised.

“I think the Democrats have pretty much indicated where they’re going with this and they want to draw a direct line between the president’s words - and not just his words on that day but what led up to that, what he said to the Georgia secretary of state, ‘find me the votes’, the whole big lie, if you will - and then bring it right to that day and the president’s words while all this was going on, about the vice president [Mike Pence] basically lacking courage and telling [the rioters] when they were to go home that they were ‘good people’”, he said.

On whether he expected the majority of Republicans to side with the ex-president’s defence lawyers and back his acquittal, Mr Flake said: “I think the majority will. I think the indication is that 45 Republicans have already said that this shouldn’t go forward because the president is out of office.

“It will surprise me if we get many more than the five Republicans who have already indicated they wanted to go forward but that depends on how effective, I think, the Democrats are in bringing the emotion of that day and also appealing to these senators that they won’t always be in office, they’ll retire some time and they’ll be at home with their conscience and with their grandkids and how do they want to be remembered and that, I think, will be important because that, as a former senator, that would play on me.”

Questioned on whether the impeachment managers would be well advised to pursue a wider case against the Republican Party for its embrace of Trumpism, Mr Flake cautioned against it: “They would be wise to stick to the president. No senator or representative wants to believe that they were wrong but they can certainly start this great migration, that has to happen, away from Trump and Trumpism, a lot easier if it’s the president that is blamed and not them. I don’t see anything good coming from actually going after members of the Senate or the House.”

But opting not to interrogate the support the president’s baseless election fraud claims found among Republican senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley would mean his apologists and enablers escaping without reprimand, the interviewer suggested.

“I’m not trying to absolve my former colleagues from some of the actions that were taken at all,” Mr Flake responded.

“But what you were mentioning is what would make it easier for the party to break away from the president and Trumpism and it will more easily break away if it’s the president that receives the blame.

“Nobody wants to believe or wants others to believe that they were wrong but it’s easier for them to move away from the president and forget their own actions so I hope they will stick to the president.”

On the wider question of how his party could hope to free itself from the shackles of Trumpism going forward, the senator was cautiously optimistic.

“It’s going to be difficult, obviously,” he said.

“You see in the House of Representatives the actions of the minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, who said on one day the president is to blame and the next day he was travelling to Mar-a-Lago to meet with the president so there is obviously concern about where the so-called Trump base will be two years from now.

“But there was another telling event last week when it came to whether or not to remove [Wyoming congresswoman] Liz Cheney. Two-in-three Republican congressmen voted to keep her on in a leadership post in a private vote. Now that tells you where they are, privately, in their heart of hearts.

“They know Trumpism doesn’t have a future and they know they are better off as a body if Liz Cheney and her type remain in leadership.”

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