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The Republican Party And The Culture Of Consequences

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What does accountability look like to Republicans? This morning, President Trump's legal team has filed their detailed brief. The impeachment trial in the Senate gets started tomorrow, and Democrats will argue that Trump incited the crowd that attacked the U.S. Capitol. Some Republicans, including the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, have condemned the violence and blamed Trump. But many in the GOP are trying to walk a line between saying Trump did nothing wrong and this is the wrong way to punish him - with impeachment. Here's Senator Lindsey Graham on CBS' "Face The Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

LINDSEY GRAHAM: This impeachment, in the eyes of most Republicans, is an unconstitutional exercise.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

GRAHAM: The president's behavior, in my view, is not a crime, but he can be charged with one if people think he committed it because he's now a private citizen.

MARTIN: Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor at large of the conservative site The Bulwark, and he joins us this morning. Charlie, thanks for being here.

CHARLIE SYKES: Thank you.

MARTIN: President Trump's trial hasn't even started in the Senate, but a majority of Senate Republicans have made it clear they're going to acquit him. But Senator Mitch McConnell last month said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.

MARTIN: How can Senate Republicans not hold Trump accountable? How can Trump not face consequences here?

SYKES: Well, Donald Trump needs to face consequences here because no one is above the law, and another acquittal will effectively turn impeachment into a dead letter. Look, in this particular case, we are dealing with something that we've never seen before in American history - the president of the United States, who is trying to overturn a legitimate, free and fair election and using a mob to attack the Congress of the United States to prevent them from counting electoral votes. If that is not a redline for impeachment, I just have no idea what is. But it's going to be a huge test.

I mean, one thing you have to remember is that with the exception of Mitt Romney, this is somewhat a difficult political decision for Republicans because a vote to convict would be a confession and admission that they have been wrong to back Trump for so long, make so many concessions and to rationalize his behavior. But I expect at least some Republicans will say that the president of the United States needs to be held accountable for this attack on our democracy.

MARTIN: I want to talk about what this means for the party going forward in a moment. But I want to get you to weigh in on what we heard Senator Lindsey Graham say - arguing that Trump's trial is unconstitutional. Graham claims Trump didn't commit a crime, and if he did, he should be charged criminally. What do you make of that?

SYKES: Well, I certainly wouldn't close the door on charging Trump criminally. I mean, I think that, at some point, there needs to be a grand jury investigation of the entire assault and everybody involved in that assault. But having said that, I don't think there's any real question about whether or not the Senate has the right to go ahead with this impeachment trial. There is a precedent. This has been done before. The Senate's already voted on the question of constitutionality and voted - I believe it was 55-45 - that, in fact, it was legitimate.

But this is, of course, a dodge. This is part of the way the Republicans hope to avoid confronting the reality of what happened. This is the way that they can dodge having to vote up or down on whether or not Donald Trump betrayed his oath of office and committed a crime that, by any measure, would be considered a high crime and misdemeanor.

MARTIN: Speaking of dodges, Republicans last week failed to act to remove Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committee assignments. Do you see a pattern here?

SYKES: Well, I do. And in fact, what this party is doing is it is failing to hold itself accountable. I mean, I thought it was rather remarkable that you had 61 members of the House Republican caucus vote to remove Liz Cheney from her position for voting to impeach President Trump. But only 11 were willing to go on the floor and say that Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is a bigot and a conspiracy theorist, should be removed from her committee assignments. So you really get a sense of what the Republican Party, at least in the House of Representatives, has become.

MARTIN: I want to play a little clip from Liz Cheney, congresswoman from the state of Wyoming - Republican - in the leadership, No. 3 Republican in the House. This is what she said on Fox News yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ CHENEY: President Trump, for months leading up to January 6, spread the notion that the election had been stolen or that the election was rigged. But it was a lie, and people need to understand that. We need to make sure that we, as Republicans, are the party of truth.

MARTIN: So she escaped this attempted ouster from leadership. But do you think in the medium term to long term, Liz Cheney has a place in the GOP?

SYKES: Well, that's an interesting question. In fact, that may be one of the most urgent questions for the future of the party. Who is more likely to be purged, Marjorie Taylor Greene or Liz Cheney? I thought it was extraordinary that Liz Cheney, who is the No. 3 ranking House Republican, yesterday went on that Fox News show, and she brought - I mean, she brought the fire. She really did, saying that Donald Trump is a person who does not have a role as leader of our party going forward. So she's saying that it is time to excommunicate Donald Trump, which to say is countercultural in the modern Republican Party is putting it mildly.

MARTIN: So let's end there. Explain what Donald Trump's hold on the GOP is now that he is no longer in elected office.

SYKES: It really is extraordinary that the defeated, disgraced and now twice-impeached president still has this hold. How durable it's going to be, I don't know. But it is - it's going to be one of those enduring mysteries, to be quite honest with you, but a testament to the degree to which our politics has become so tribal and a testament to the way the Republican Party has really ceased to be a party of ideas or policies and has become very much a cult of personality. And we'll find out how durable that cult is over the next couple of years.

MARTIN: You know, one of the big Super Bowl ads yesterday, if there were any to note, was this Jeep ad starring Bruce Springsteen, where it's just him talking about the need to find common ground. As a Republican, Charlie, where do you see the middle anymore?

SYKES: Well, I don't consider myself a Republican anymore, but I think that that's one of the urgent questions - is there a vital center? Is there a coalition of the decent, a coalition of people who will go - who will believe that somehow, we need to make a different turn in our American politics? But, you know, at this point, we are a very divided country, and there are people invested in making us even more divided. You would think that the events of January 6 would have been sobering, that they would have had the kind of shock to the system that, say, 9/11 had. But unfortunately, that appears not to be the case.

MARTIN: Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of The Bulwark, former Republican, we should say - apologies for that. Charlie, thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

SYKES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.