Pat Toomey Defends Impeachment Vote, Says He’ll Support Trump in November
It’s possible the senator has come away from the sorry episode unscathed. It’s also possible that he’s created a long-term problem for himself.
Senator Pat Toomey had a smart plan for how to publicly explain his vote in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. He rolled it out last September, when the transcript of Trump’s infamous phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky became public; Toomey called the conversation “inappropriate” but quickly added that “it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.” He also said there was “no quid pro quo.” By striking that middle ground, Toomey would annoy the extremes of both sides but placate everyone else: Trump had done something wrong, but not wrong enough.
The Senator has kept his public utterings similarly simple since the President’s acquittal, and it may seem as if Toomey has come away from this sorry episode relatively unscathed. But it’s also quite possible that Pat Toomey has created a problem for himself.
We don’t, of course, know how the next few months and the presidential election will play out. But let’s look at the future broadly. “I can imagine a situation,” says University of Pittsburgh political science professor Kristin Kanthak, “where there’s a Democrat in the White House, and the going narrative about Trump’s presidency becomes, wow, that was a terrible blip in history. And anyone who helped facilitate that is on the outs. That would be bad news for Toomey.”
Toomey isn’t up for reelection — or a run for governor, which he’s said to be interested in — until 2022, but Kanthak believes that his vote in the impeachment trial might dog him in either race, whether Trump stays in the White House or a Democrat takes over. Pennsylvania is a state leaning more blue than red these days, and that impeachment vote could end up undermining the carefully crafted story Toomey has developed of just who he is, which is something crucial to any politician.
Toomey came of political age as a Tea Party favorite, a righteous ideologue who in 2005 had taken over the Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization whose mission included funding hard-right challengers in order to get rid of centrist Republicans in Congress. (Toomey himself had served three terms in the House, declining to run for a fourth after he’d pledged to stop at three.)
When he announced a run for the U.S. Senate in 2009, his support among conservatives was so strong that he forced longtime incumbent Arlen Specter to leave the Republican Party. (Specter lost in the Democratic primary to Joe Sestak). But Toomey — who defeated Sestak in the general election — knew early in his first term in the Senate that he had to shift his image.
His longtime campaign strategist told Roll Call three years ago that Toomey risked becoming a right-wing “caricature.” So in 2011, a new strategy was born: The Senator would be reasonable and thoughtful, willing to work with Democrats and disagree at times with Republican orthodoxy. It was a surprise; Pat Toomey became — this, at any rate, is the story, the one that got him reelected in 2016 — a moderate.
And Toomey, while voting with Trump an overwhelming majority of the time, has shown his independence. For example, the Senator publicly criticized the President’s reaction to the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s racist tweets that inspired rally chants of “Send her home!” aimed at Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar last summer. Following Trump’s news conference with Vladimir Putin in 2018, Toomey released a statement that the President’s “blindness” to Putin’s nature was “very troubling.” Toomey criticized Trump pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, and he was against the President’s attempt to use military funding to finance his border wall. And when it comes to free enterprise — Toomey’s core passion — he has attacked Trump’s tariffs and trade policies repeatedly.
All of which made the Senator’s thinking regarding impeachment something I was quite curious about. So I took a ride up to Allentown — Toomey’s home turf — in mid-February to talk to him about it.
My goal in meeting with Toomey wasn’t to challenge his vote to acquit the President so much as to see if I could find out how he got there.
We got right down to business once we parked at the end of a long conference-room table in his office. “If Donald Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine unless they did his bidding to investigate a political rival in an upcoming election,” I said, “doesn’t that rise to the level of impeachment?”
“So, you’ve characterized it very broadly,” Toomey, a strikingly narrow-faced, even-keeled man, said. “If you look at the circumstances in front of us, there was a brief pause in the delivery of funds that were meant for the Ukrainian government and ended up getting to the Ukrainians — got there before there was any compromised ability of the Ukrainians to defend themselves. This was not money that was needed in real time. It got there without an announcement or the pursuit of an investigation, and it appears that it got there within maybe no more than a couple of weeks of the Ukrainian government even being aware at the top levels there had been a pause put on. So if the motivation for the pause was not a good motivation, and that’s entirely possible — it’s even likely — I think the action itself and importance of the action matters for determining whether a duly elected president is going to be removed from office.”
Toomey’s explanation is a bit tortured, to say the least. And it conveniently leaves out a couple of important facts: that the Trump administration only released the money to Ukraine after members of Congress raised questions about it and, more importantly, after the infamous whistle-blower filed an official complaint about the White House’s dealings with Ukraine. In other words, it’s entirely possible — it’s even likely — that the money was released only because the President got caught red-handed shaking down the leader of another country.
But this is what it comes down to for the Senator: a “brief pause,” a characterization he will use several more times, so that it begins to sound like a somewhat saner version of Donald Trump’s “perfect conversation” mantra. The point is, Toomey said, these are the facts, the facts are what we have to go on, and the facts didn’t warrant a vote to kick the President out of office. That’s his argument.
Like all his fellow Republican senators, Toomey was under intense political pressure, as only President Trump can apply it, throughout the impeachment saga. Earlier, I asked Ed Rendell what he made of Toomey’s vote for acquittal, and the former governor didn’t mince words: “He’ll be running for governor, or for senator again. Toomey doesn’t want a primary opponent, and the best way to get a primary opponent is to do something that would anger Trump. It was a political calculation.”
But politics, Pat Toomey insisted to me, didn’t enter into his vote at the President’s impeachment trial.
You almost feel for Toomey, especially given the challenging politics of this state. There was the much-ballyhooed “blue wave” that got the Fab Four women elected to Congress from Pennsylvania in ’18, though recent data on 9,000 state precincts shows rural areas getting even more conservative. The general trend, however, isn’t good for Toomey. He did fairly well in the Philly suburbs in 2016 — much better than Trump, as many voters split their tickets — but Bucks and Montgomery counties and other suburbs are moving blue. More rural conservatives in Southwestern Pennsylvania and Luzerne County can’t cancel out the sheer numbers of suburban college-educated women and moderates who seem to be shifting leftward.
Pennsylvania isn’t so much a swing state as a place at war with itself, and Toomey is at risk from both sides. He tried to finesse that tension in ’16; asked repeatedly whom he was supporting for president, Toomey declined to answer until 6:45 p.m. on Election Day, when he finally admitted that Donald Trump had gotten his vote. Holding out like that came across as both calculating and weak.
During Trump’s trial, Republican senators had to appear as if they were actually attempting to consider the House’s impeachment case, with the President’s itchy Twitter fingers at the ready. What if Pat Toomey had stood up with Utah Senator Mitt Romney and said yes to removing Trump? It’s pretty easy to imagine the relentless stream of recrimination he would have faced from the White House (not to mention vociferous Trump supporters) for the next three years, making his job impossible.
Still, there was the overriding importance of this trial, this moment, and I asked Toomey why his party wasn’t open to calling witnesses during Trump’s trial.
“It would be a fundamental violation of the Constitutional division of responsibility for us to be looking for outside information in an impeachment,” Toomey said. “The House has the sole power of impeachment.”
Maybe. Although that wasn’t the Senate’s position during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999. Nor did it stop Toomey from discussing, in private with other Republican senators during Trump’s trial, a potential one-for-one deal on witnesses. After former Trump national security adviser John Bolton’s explosive allegations — that the President had explicitly tied the pressure he was putting on Zelensky to investigate the Bidens to the military funding freeze — suddenly came to light in his forthcoming book, there was talk of letting him testify if Democrats would let Hunter Biden testify as well.
“Or it might have been Joe Biden,” Toomey told me, seeming a bit amused at that possibility. He then made a case that the Bidens testifying really would have been germane to the President’s trial, as opposed to a smokescreen straight out of the Trumpian playbook. (To wit: Look over here at this other horrible mess instead of mine.) Of course, the Democrats would never go for either Biden being called as a witness, and as we also know, neither John Bolton nor anyone else testified.
I asked Toomey if he believed the President was really concerned about corruption in Ukraine.
“Absolutely, I know he was. He’s spoken about it many times.”
So you take him at his word?
“He’s been speaking about corruption for years; he spoke about it before he was elected president.”
All this strikes me as a strange turn for a normally sharp thinker into the rabbit hole of defending a president when he felt that was his only choice. (Of course, he did have another.) And now, over the next three years, we’ll discover whether Pat Toomey’s vote has done long-lasting damage to that carefully crafted story of his moderate independence.
Certainly, the most important vote of Toomey’s career could be campaign fodder in ’22, whether he runs for reelection or for governor; he’s said he’ll decide which race to pursue after this year’s presidential election. “If Trump were to pardon [political operative] Roger Stone,” Pitt professor Kanthak says, “I can see what an opposition ad could be: ‘Why did Pat Toomey give the President carte blanche to pardon his crooked friends?’ That would be a really tough ad.”
Kanthak is spitballing; Trump’s current dance in considering pardons for his friends might seem like ancient news in an election season two years from now. But no doubt Trump will continue to produce raw material for opposition campaign ads, and whatever questionable behavior he comes up with could be married not only to Toomey’s impeachment vote but also to his laughable explanation in making it. And that could certainly undermine what Toomey wants and needs us to believe about his independence from this president.
Then again, maybe Toomey has finally accepted the hard truth: There’s really no such thing as an independent Republican anymore.
I asked the Senator if he’ll support the President’s reelection.
“I believe I will,” Pat Toomey told me, making a public leap he avoided until the witching hour of Election Day four years ago. And with that, we’re done.
Published as “Toomey’s Choice” in the April 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.