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Senators try to punt their way out of trouble and Trump’s line of fire

It may look like a winning strategy today, but the election is still nine months away

Sen. Susan Collins suggested impeachment itself was enough to scare Donald Trump into walking the straight and narrow from now on. Has she ever met the president? Curtis asks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Susan Collins suggested impeachment itself was enough to scare Donald Trump into walking the straight and narrow from now on. Has she ever met the president? Curtis asks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Don’t you just hate it when someone uses a sports metaphor to teach a life lesson? So do I, usually. But with the Super Bowl not a week in the rearview mirror, it would be impossible to ignore the concept of the punt — getting out of a tough situation by moving the ball as far as possible toward the opponent’s end zone.

If you’re playing against a Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs, you’re merely buying some time before the inevitable score. But senators using that tactic in an impeached President Donald Trump’s trial are no doubt hoping any payback comes late, or not at all.

For them, it’s a way to satisfy both their consciences and a Trump-supporting voting base.

Playing it safe

It’s a safe play for Republicans such as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, clear in her disapproval of Trump’s actions — his asking a foreign government to investigate a political rival before a presidential election, and holding up congressionally approved, much-needed military aid as well as a possible White House visit as leverage.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has said the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, at the president’s direction, violated the law when it withheld military assistance. Transcripts of the president’s call to Ukraine has Trump asking for a favor — acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney belligerently confirmed the attempted transaction and the president himself asked Ukraine and China for more of the same. And that is just a hint of the case laid out by House impeachment managers to the Senate.

Murkowski has never described the Ukraine call, as the president has, as “perfect.” She called his behavior “shameful and wrong,” adding that he did not always act “with the respect and dignity that the office demands.” But then, after her “no” vote on witnesses, she said it would be “no” on removing Trump from office.

She punted.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, on his way out, came to a similar conclusion. “I think he shouldn’t have done it. I think it was wrong. Inappropriate was the way I’d say, improper, crossing the line,” the Tennessee Republican told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said he didn’t need more witnesses because he’s pretty much convinced that the Democrats have already proved Trump did everything he’s accused of doing.

But Alexander punted, leaving it up to the voters, though the Constitution gives that job to the Senate.

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That would make a little bit of sense if there were some guarantee that the president would be chastened enough to cease and desist his efforts to game the 2020 election by any means he deems necessary. (Though his lawyer Alan Dershowitz floated the monarchical theory that cheating on his own behalf would leave Trump in the clear.)

Yet that’s the route Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins ran when she laughably suggested that impeachment itself was enough to scare Trump into walking the straight and narrow from now on. “I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future,” Collins, who is up for reelection this year, told CBS News. Has she ever met this president? Even he reportedly brushed away that rationale.

His own drum

Trump is nothing if not brazen. World G-7 leaders would be planning to meet in June at Trump National Doral in Miami if not for howls from members of both parties about the obvious conflicts.

Expect more from an emboldened Trump. Though dudes named Lev and Igor are otherwise occupied, he can count on personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, looking after his own interests and the interests of clients not named Trump in his globe-trotting schemes. In an NPR interview, Giuliani said he has no intention of halting his quest to dig up dirt in Ukraine or anywhere else, and said (wink, wink) the president has not held him back.

Also expect Trump-style retribution trained on Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican standard-bearer, soon-to-be pariah. He voted to hear from witnesses and to convict the president on abuse of power, calling his actions “an appalling abuse of public trust.”

Romney is playing the long game — history.

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On the Democratic side, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, facing an uphill reelection battle in a Trump-loving state, said Wednesday, “After many sleepless nights, I have reluctantly concluded that the evidence is sufficient to convict the President for both abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.”

No game-playing there, in a decision that will probably cost him power but may help him catch up on that sleep, uninterrupted by bad dreams.

You have to give it to Trump. He is a high-risk, high-reward player, going for it all on fourth down, even when yardage and the odds are long. But he can depend on a compliant GOP Congress blocking for him and occasionally shoving an opponent or making a late tackle, no matter the evidence that is sure to continue to surface.

To hear Trump tell it, as in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, he wins every time. Well, that is if you don’t notice how he takes credit for the recovery that began under President Barack Obama; how he highlights more black people in the audience than he has appointed to the judiciary or his Cabinet; and how he praises the military whose members he calls “dopes and babies” behind closed doors, according to revelations in the book “A Very Stable Genius.”

When the president who trashes the Affordable Care Act in words and in court promises to protect those with preexisting conditions, when he name-checks Harriet Tubman after his administration has put a hold on a stamp honoring her, you get the feeling he actually believes his own hype and forgets what he said or did the day before.

The president flaunts his power, which he believes is unlimited, and that is more than you can say for timid senators, tasked with maintaining a balance of power between the legislative and executive co-equal branches of government — and failing.

Faced with an admittedly tough choice, but one that their oath compels them to make, so many senators have combined disapproval with looking the other way.

They have punted that responsibility to hold the president to account to the American people, who may be too exhausted to care. In February, it’s working, especially considering Trump is riding pretty high in the latest polls and Democratic 2020 contenders look as confused as, well, Democrats.

And it may be a winning strategy. But then, the 49ers looked like champions after the third quarter.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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