Ted Cruz, John Cornyn join successful effort to acquit president

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn have been vocal defenders of President Donald Trump. Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS

By Abby Livingston, Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON — Texas’ two Republican senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, voted with a majority of their chamber to acquit President Donald Trump of two articles of impeachment Wednesday.

The final vote was 52 to 48 to acquit on the charge of abuse of power after a Senate trial in which there was little question about the outcome from the start. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was the sole Republican to join all Democrats in voting in favor of convicting Trump on that charge. Romney voted with the Republicans to acquit on another charge of obstruction of Congress.

“This impeachment circus is over. Just minutes ago, I voted to acquit President Trump,” Cruz said in a statement. “The majority of the Senate voted to acquit President Trump. This nonsense is over. This was abuse of the Constitution from day one, and today the Senate defended the rule of law. Today, the Senate defended the Constitution.”

Both Texans, each a prominent lawyer before joining the Senate, served as jurors in a process with little precedent to follow and cloaked themselves with inscrutability as they listened to legal arguments over the president’s fate. But outside the chamber, they deployed their training to defend the president to the public and left little doubt where they stood on the matter.

The abuse of power charge was rooted in a series of testimonies in the fall that alleged the president pressured Ukrainian leadership to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, in exchange for U.S. military aid that Congress had previously appropriated.

The obstruction charge came about as the White House refused to allow a number of presidential advisers to testify before the House. Rather than litigate for months — if not years — over the enforcement of subpoenas, the House moved forward and sent the impeachment articles to the Senate in mid-January for trial.

It was a roll-call proceeding, with each senator standing and announcing a “guilty” or “not guilty” vote. Three House members from the state, Republican U.S. Reps. Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Chip Roy of Austin and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, observed the vote from a bench at the back of the chamber.

Cornyn and Cruz similarly voted with nearly all of their GOP conference to oppose testimony from new witnesses before the Senate. And in the process, they served as fierce defenders of the president and his actions.

For Cornyn, the impeachment trial came as he gears up for his fourth U.S. Senate campaign. But it also served as a reminder for how closely he is aligned with Senate leadership.

Once the second-ranking Republican senator, internal term limit rules forced Cornyn to step down from that post last year. But even without the title, there is little question over his proximity to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And Cornyn emerged over the last month as the leading spokesman for the party in interviews with reporters, on social media and in television appearances.

His commentary was pointed. He frequently defended Republican positions on rules and taunted Democrats — mostly U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the senators running for president who were forced to stay in Washington amid the lead-up to the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Cruz, once the bombastic black sheep within the Senate Republican conference, has spent the last year or so as a quieter presence around the halls of the Capitol. Chastened from a second-place finish to Trump in the 2016 GOP nomination fight and a shocking near-loss to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Cruz kept a lower profile of late.

But impeachment brought out the old Cruz, who showed his intellectual swagger, made frequent trips to microphones to speak to reporters and, surprisingly, hosted the top podcast in the country — a daily report on the impeachment proceedings that reached No. 1 on the iTunes charts. Democrats frequently underscored that the man Cruz so vigorously defended once insulted the appearance of Cruz’s wife and falsely accused his father of participating in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, was the Democrat with the most up-close view of how the state’s two senators handled themselves during the process. Day in, day out for nearly three weeks, she sat at the front of the chamber in her capacity as a House impeachment manager. As effectively a Trump prosecutor, it was her role to appeal to a chamber of Senate-jurors, including her home state senators.

Inside the room, both men were subdued. Cruz frequently scribbled on a legal pad and listened while leaning back in his desk chair toward the rear of the room. Cornyn sat close to the front in a nod to his seniority. He listened closely, often with a furrowed brow.

“I do try to make eye contact,” Garcia told reporters last week. “But frankly, they’re very ihard to read.”

Garcia, a former municipal court judge, noted Cornyn’s past on the bench and described him as wearing a poker face that was the “same sort of demeanor and posture when he’s listening as I do.”

She found Cruz even more inscrutable.

“They both seem to be listening,” she added. “I’ve not seen them take a lot of notes. I’m hopeful that we can persuade one of them, but it’s doubtful.”

The state Democratic Party seized on the vote, with Cornyn’s reelection in mind.

“Throughout this entire impeachment process, complicit John Cornyn showed his true colors,” said Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Raman. “Every opportunity he’s had to do his job and stand up for Texans and our Constitution, he’s instead stood for McConnell and Trump. Texans see right through John Cornyn and [are] ready to send him home in November.”

The senators’ votes to acquit could prove to be among the most notable votes of their careers. Or, like every other extraordinary development of the Trump era, who did what during impeachment could fade into the background as the next drama takes hold.

Cruz will not face voters for another five years. Cornyn, however, is on the ballot in November. Most political handicappers project that he is a safe bet for reelection. But on the heels of Cruz’s close finish in 2018 and the overall political turbulence in the ether, even Cornyn cranked the alarm last year to his fellow Texas Republicans.

It’s an open debate among political operatives whether impeachment will be a top issue in November.

At one point during a debate over rules, Cornyn urged his followers and Senate colleagues to litigate Trump’s removal in November rather than throw him out of office now.

“Save the rest for 2020 election,” he wrote.