Senate Republicans’ disingenuous outrage over Schiff’s “head on a pike” comment, briefly explained

During his closing arguments at the Senate impeachment trial on Friday, impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff made a comment that set some Republicans off.

CBS News reported last night that a Trump confidant said that GOP senators were warned, ‘Vote against the president — and your head will be on a pike,’” he said. “Now, I don’t know if that’s true.”

He added, “I hope it’s not true,” before arguing that this is the sort of statement a president who believes himself to be a king would make.

The outrage was swift — even inside the chamber.

Sen. Susan Collins shook her head, according to Politico, and loudly said, “Not true.” Others appeared similarly dismayed. And the tone in the room apparently changed.

After lawmakers left the trial, several continued to voice their concerns. “I thought he was doing fine with moral courage until he got to the head on a pike. That’s where he lost me,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “Nothing like going through three days of frustration and then cap it off with an insult,” said Sen. James Lankford. “He has basically offended every Republican senator in there tonight,” added Sen. John Barrasso.

While Republicans didn’t indicate how these comments would affect any potential vote on witnesses next week, they did latch onto them as a new way to criticize the Democrats’ otherwise painstakingly thorough case for removal. And in doing so, they obscured much of the context around them.

For one, Schiff was citing a news report and not making the assertion himself. Additionally, while the specific quote itself has spurred strong reactions for obvious reasons — the point it’s trying to make is one that’s an apparent political reality: If lawmakers break with Trump on impeachment, there will likely be backlash — whether that’s from the administration or the Republican base.

The pushback on Schiff echoed some of the attacks Republicans had levied against Rep. Jerry Nadler earlier in the week for violating Senate decorum: It felt like Republicans were simply looking for a reason to discredit the Democratic arguments that had very little to do with the actual substance at all.

Republicans are under significant pressure to stick with the president

House Democrats’ reference to the CBS News report were in line with points that the impeachment managers made on Friday about the need for Congress to check the President, so he doesn’t act like a “king” or “dictator.”

“I was struck by the irony of the idea, when we’re talking about a president who would make himself a monarch, that whoever that was would use the terminology of a penalty that was imposed by a monarch, a head on a pike,” Schiff said.

When lawmakers have opposed him in the past, Trump has, in fact, not exactly taken it too kindly. Most recently, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump ally, voted in favor of checking presidential war powers when it comes to military action in Iran, a position that went against the White House’s.

“White House officials would not be returning Gaetz’s phone calls, text messages, ‘smoke signals or his kneelings in the snow,’” an official told The Washington Post after the vote took place. Former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, too, garnered severe blowback for his critiques of the president, who ultimately endorsed his primary challenger in 2018.

Trump’s tendency to quash such opposition is well-known in Washington, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) emphasized to reporters. “Well, that’s one of the worst kept secrets in Washington is what this White House and this president will do to someone who crosses him, and he’s made that clear from day one.”

Members of the Republican base, with whom Trump has an 88 percent approval rating, according to Gallup, have often rejected breaks with the president as well.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a vulnerable Republican who initially refused to support Trump declaring a national emergency to fund the border wall, is among the lawmakers to experience the consequences of going against the president firsthand. While Tillis ultimately reversed his position, he dealt with the threat of a potential primary challenger after announcing his opposition.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has said that any Republican that does not vote in favor of calling Hunter Biden as a witness, if that question emerges, would be in electoral danger. “If you vote against Hunter Biden, you’re voting to lose your election, basically. Seriously. That’s what it is,” he previously told Politico.

So while Schiff’s specific reference to the CBS report might be in dispute, even Republicans would seem to agree with the premise of its central metaphor. Which makes the outrage over the lawmaker’s decision to include it in his arguments seem less about whether the report was true, and more about finding something to distract focus from the charges Trump faces.

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