The impeachment trial of Donald Trump is nearing a final conclusion, one in which the president will be acquitted of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress by seeking to leverage foreign aid for domestic political gain and, subsequently, covered that up.
But the fallout from the months-long affair is just beginning to be felt. And for at least one member of the United States Senate, the real damage is only now about to come.
“I think we have potentially ruined the impeachment power of the Senate,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Friday.
“Whatever you want to say about the Clinton impeachment they came to an agreement around the process. Senator McConnell never even attempted to come to an agreement around the process here. And I guess I put the impeachment trial in a larger context. I think the Senate is on its way to being fundamentally broken by Mitch McConnell.”
In an interview conducted on Friday shortly before the Senate voted against calling additional witnesses to shed light on the president’s conduct, Murphy said he feared the ramifications that an acquittal would have on future U.S. elections, and conceded that there would be temptations for Democrats to simply mirror Trump and invite foreign entities to meddle in campaigns. But he said that he would advise any candidate to not play that game, even if it amounted to unilateral disarmament.
“Does that put us at a political disadvantage that we can never recover from? Maybe,” he said. “But I don't know what the point of the Democratic Party is if we are willing to engage in that kind of behavior.”
Mainly, however, Murphy worried that Trump himself would take the Senate’s judgment as a de facto green light for him to further bend the levers of U.S. foreign policy towards his electoral interests. “That’s obviously going to keep all of us up at night, the idea that the president is going to feel completely vindicated and keep the scheme going,” he said. “[T]he president has shown no shame over this. And he likely will just restart his effort to corrupt the election as soon as we are done.”
Below is a transcript of our talk, edited slightly for purposes of reading.
THE DAILY BEAST: Did anything over the past couple of weeks catch you by surprise?
MURPHY: One of the things that caught me by surprise is it was really clear to me during the House manager’s presentation that Senate Republicans hadn’t seen this case. They were pretty locked in to the video and to the manager’s testimony and it sort of dawned on me that they have had a habit generally with Trump of willful ignorance. That's their entire approach to the press. ‘Oh I didn't read that’ or ‘I didn't see that.’ I think that’s what they were doing in November and December. So I think for many of them it was truly the first time they were hearing some of the basic evidence of Trump’s corruption. These have been two very uncomfortable weeks in the Senate. We have to talk to each other because there are important things at stake... It’s a really heavy room and I think much of that is because half the chamber was being introduced to these facts essentially for the first time
THE DAILY BEAST: If that’s the case, why did the outcome seem so preordained?
MURPHY: I’m more confident in this conclusion now than I was prior to the trial. And here is my theory of the case. I think Republicans know this guy is bad news. I think they know what he did is wrong. I think they know he is a threat to the country. But they perceive a bigger threat to exist. And this case for them was a perfect example of the great threat that exists to democracy. What they believed is that there is a cabal of Democratic public servants and liberal media elites that are out to destroy the conservative movement. In their mind, everybody who works for the government is a Democrat. No self-respecting Republican would ever work for the government. And everyone who writes for a newspaper or website is a Democrat. And while they don’t love Donald Trump, they see the Ukraine scandal as an example of how the media and the “deep state” together are trying to take down the conservative movement.
THE DAILY BEAST: So then how do they rationalize it when a John Bolton, who is clearly not a Democrat, comes forward?
MURPHY: I don’t think they deny the corruption, right? I think most of them are aware. [Senator] Lamar [Alexander] is. They’re pretty sure it happened and they don’t think it was proper. But they think there is a bigger problem out there. That’s why you saw all this focus on the whistleblower, right? There are so many questions about the whistleblower because they truly believe that if they don't stop the “deep state” from undermining Trump, then no Republican president will ever be allowed to succeed, even if the next one isn’t as dangerous as Trump is.
THE DAILY BEAST: Let’s talk about Lamar’s statement Thursday night, acknowledging that the House managers had made the case, but that it wasn’t an impeachable offense. Isn’t that, in a way, the worst outcome of all this?
MURPHY: In what way?
THE DAILY BEAST: It codifies the idea that you can have a foreign policy based on extortion.
MURPHY: It’s a good question. I guess, I would rather have my colleagues concede the facts and admit what he did was wrong than deny the whole thing took place. I obviously think there are grave consequences if this becomes normalized. But I also think there is value in Republicans who vote against impeachment making it clear they still believe what the president did was fundamentally wrong.
THE DAILY BEAST: But then what is to stop Trump in the next eight months from using all the levers of foreign policy to win reelection?
MURPHY: That’s obviously going to keep all of us up at night—the idea that the president is going to feel completely vindicated and keep the scheme going…. Rudy Giuliani didn’t stop trying to dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine even after impeachment began. So the president has shown no shame over this. And he likely will just restart his effort to corrupt the election as soon as we are done.
THE DAILY BEAST: Let me give you a hypothetical. Let’s say the Democratic presidential candidate, during the course of the general election, is approached by a foreign government who says, we have some real dirt on Donald Trump that we want to give to you. And that candidate comes to you and says, ‘I don’t know what to do about this.’ At this juncture, how would you advise him or her?
MURPHY: Refuse it and refer the matter to the FBI.
THE DAILY BEAST: But isn’t that unilateral disarmament at this point?
MURPHY: Yeah, but I think we face that question over and over again these days as Democrats. Are we willing to use all of the same tactics that Republicans are willing to use just because they may be legal? I don’t know. I can only speak for myself. I’m not willing to engage in the same kind of deceit that Donald Trump did even if it now becomes protected by the U.S. Congress. I get it. I understand that becomes a really difficult question for Democrats if Republicans have become willing to solicit foreign interference and Democrats aren’t. Does that put us at a political disadvantage that we can never recover from? Maybe. But I don't know what the point of the Democratic Party is if we are willing to engage in that kind of behavior.
THE DAILY BEAST: What would you like to see House Democrats do now, since they still have agency here, both on the issue of Trump's involvement in Ukraine writ large but also John Bolton?
MURPHY: We have to find a forum through which John Bolton can tell his story. It is imperative for the security of the country.
THE DAILY BEAST: And it can’t be The View?
MURPHY: It probably should not be The View. I mean, he should be subject to some kind of examination. That could happen in a hearing. It could happen in a deposition. But the House is going to have to get his story. I think more broadly we have to understand that this is going to be a national security election. This president has compromised the nation’s security and a lot of folks out there get that. So we also have to make sure that we make our case against the president along those lines.
THE DAILY BEAST: Should the House issue a subpoena for Bolton that he said he would respect if issued from the Senate?
MURPHY: I haven’t thought through the proper forum. So I don't know if it is a subpoena or not. But I think we have to get John Bolton before the Congress sooner rather than later.
THE DAILY BEAST: When you look back on this, how will you remember these past two weeks and how do you think it will ultimately affect the institutions of Congress?
MURPHY: I think we have potentially ruined the impeachment power of the Senate. Whatever you want to say about the Clinton impeachment, they came to an agreement around the process. Senator McConnell never even attempted to come to an agreement around the process here. And I guess I put the impeachment trial in a larger context. I think the Senate is on its way to being fundamentally broken by Mitch McConnell. And the way in which he rammed through impeachment rules are very similar to the way he has changed lots of traditions and norms in the Senate. So I think it stands on its own as a historical moment but I also think it stands in context of a much broader series of assaults that leader McConnell has levied on the traditions of the Senate.