Lamar Alexander Says Convicting Trump Would ‘Pour Gasoline on Cultural Fires’

WASHINGTON — As he weighed the evidence against President Trump, Senator Lamar Alexander reached an unavoidable conclusion: Mr. Trump had done what he was accused of, pressuring a foreign power to investigate his political rival. But however inappropriate his conduct, another conviction overrode the first: Americans would not tolerate the Senate stepping in to substitute its own judgment for that of the voters fewer than 10 months before the next election.

“The Senate reflects the country, and the country is as divided as it has been for a long time,” Mr. Alexander said Friday during an interview in his Capitol office. “For the Senate to tear up the ballots in this election and say President Trump couldn’t be on it, the country probably wouldn’t accept that. It would just pour gasoline on cultural fires that are burning out there.”

With that logic, Mr. Alexander delivered a victory to Mr. Trump — and to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, with whom Mr. Alexander has been friends for more than a half-century. In announcing he would vote to block witnesses at Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, he set Mr. Trump on a quick course to his inevitable acquittal.

Many Republicans appeared to be following Mr. Alexander’s lead on Friday, saying the Tennessee senator had echoed the feelings of their caucus — and the country.

“Long story short, @SenatorAlexander most likely expressed the sentiments of the country as a whole as well as any single Senator possibly could,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a close ally of Mr. Trump’s, wrote on Twitter. “Those who hate Trump and wish to take the voters choice away in an unfounded manner, Sen. Alexander rightly rejected their arguments.”

Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, put it this way: “Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us.”

Mr. Alexander could easily have gone the other way. He is retiring from the Senate and free to vote as he pleases without political consequences. And he said in the interview that Mr. Trump had done exactly what Democrats had accused him of doing: He withheld military aid from Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate his political rival — a move he could not condone.

“I think he did something that was clearly inappropriate,” Mr. Alexander said. “I think it is inappropriate for the president to ask the leader of a foreign nation to investigate a leading political rival, which the president says he did. I think it is inappropriate at least in part to withhold aid to encourage that investigation.”

“But that is not treason, that is not bribery, that is not a high crime and misdemeanor,” he added, listing the criteria enumerated in the Constitution for impeachable offenses.

It is hardly a surprise that Mr. Alexander is effectively coming down on both sides. Widely respected as a Senate “institutionalist” — a guardian of its traditions — he is a product of a bygone time in Republican politics: the pre-Trump era, when lawmakers worked across the political aisle to forge consensus on matters of national importance.

A former governor, university president and secretary of education, Mr. Alexander has modeled himself on Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., another Tennessee Republican, who turned against President Richard M. Nixon during Watergate. Mr. Baker, who died in 2014, introduced Mr. Alexander to Mr. McConnell in 1969, when Mr. Alexander was an aide in the Nixon White House and Mr. McConnell was a legislative assistant to a Kentucky senator.

Few friendships in the Capitol have been as enduring as theirs. Today Mr. McConnell calls Mr. Alexander “my best friend in the Senate.” But Mr. Alexander said he did not give Mr. McConnell — whom he described, aptly, as “a person of few words” — advance notice of his vote.

“I know what he thinks, and he knows that is not the way to influence my decisions,” Mr. Alexander said.

Yet Mr. McConnell did not really have to ask. Although Mr. Alexander was lumped in with three other Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — who had expressed openness to witnesses, it was clear early on that he was unlikely to vote to include them.

Those close to him say he does not relish shaking things up.

“I think that Lamar has been able to successfully navigate the ins and outs of the new administration because Lamar is very wise in how he shares, when he shares, any disagreement or policy difference he might have with the administration,” said Tom Griscom, a close friend of Mr. Alexander’s who worked as Mr. Baker’s press secretary. “He’s not looking to be out on the front edge of it.”

Another close friend, Tom Ingram, who ran Mr. Alexander’s Senate races and served as his chief of staff, said he was not surprised by Mr. Alexander’s decision. He said Mr. Alexander was troubled by what he regarded as a highly partisan impeachment process in the House, and wanted to assure that the Senate gave it thorough consideration, which was why he had expressed openness to witnesses.

“Knowing the reverence he holds for the presidency — the office, not the person — and for the Senate process and how seriously he takes impeachment, it was going to have to be very clear in his mind that the offense clearly fit the high bar set in the Constitution.”

With 47 Democratic votes (including those of two independents who caucus with them), Senate Democrats would need four Republicans to cross party lines in order to force the Senate to subpoena witnesses and fresh documents. In the end, it appears, they will fall short by two. Ms. Collins and Mr. Romney have said they will vote in favor of witnesses.

A little more than 12 hours after Mr. Alexander had declared his intentions, Ms. Murkowski said Friday that she, too, would vote against.

“Given the partisan nature of this impeachment from the very beginning and throughout, I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate,” she said in a statement. “I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything.”

“It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed,” Ms. Murkowski added.

Unlike Mr. Alexander, she did not pass judgment on Mr. Trump’s behavior. Mr. Alexander’s decision to do so gave Democrats a boost.

“He came to the wrong conclusions about hearing evidence in this trial, that’s clear,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, told reporters on Friday. “But Senator Alexander, a senior Senate Republican, a retiring member, said out loud what I think most Senate Republicans believe in private: That yes, the president did withhold military assistance to try to get Ukraine to help with his election.”

Even so, Mr. Alexander told NPR that he supported Mr. Trump’s re-election.

In the interview with The New York Times, he said voters should take the charges against Mr. Trump into account, but offered a pointed contrast between the president and his would-be Democratic challengers, specifically mentioning Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, an icon of the progressive left who is a leading contender in her party’s nominating contest.

“Whatever you think of his behavior,” Mr. Alexander said of Mr. Trump, “with the terrific economy, with conservative judges, with fewer regulations, you add in there an inappropriate call with the president of Ukraine, and you decide if you prefer him or Elizabeth Warren.”

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