With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s September announcement of an official impeachment inquiry, U.S. politics has been tumbling toward one dramatic, high-stakes end: trial in the U.S. Senate.
When that will come, or if it will come at all, still isn’t certain. But North Dakota and Minnesota’s senators, who would be four of 100 jurors, already are signaling their level of support for President Donald Trump — who is all but sure to face a bruising next several months as Democrats delve into his relationship with Ukraine.
Tracking those senators’ public comments in recent months offers a window into what comes next. Here’s a look at what we’ve seen so far:
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., has close ties to Trump. He has been a vocal supporter of the president since Trump was merely a candidate and Cramer was a member of the U.S. House. He also was personally persuaded by President Trump to run for Senate, at first balking at the opportunity before officially launching his 2018 campaign.
Cramer’s defenses of the president now have been just as full-throated as ever. When Trump faced sharp criticism over plans to host high-level foreign talks at a Trump Organization resort in Florida, Cramer said “there’s tremendous integrity in (Trump’s) boldness and transparency.”
The growing Ukraine scandal is no different. After seeing text messages in which American diplomats are at odds — with one reassuring the other that Trump was not trying to trade American aid for re-election help — Cramer said those texts show there “is not and never was a quid pro quo.”
Now that Democrats are pushing further into the impeachment process, Cramer has lobbed procedural concerns that the process isn't transparent enough. He’s one of the original sponsors of a Senate resolution that condemns Democrats’ handling of impeachment in the House.
“The House’s impeachment investigation has been nothing more than secretive hearings and selective leaks designed to sway public opinion and hurt President Trump. It is a hyper-partisan process completely void of due process,” Cramer said this week. “It is a disservice to the American people.”
When invited to comment broadly on impeachment proceedings, Cramer’s staff referred the Herald to previous public comments.
The tenure of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is less directly linked to Trump, and predates the president’s political career. He’s far less likely than Cramer to be seen on cable news defending the president’s actions.
“I think Hoeven is much less dependent on the president for his base of support,” said Bo Wood, a professor of political science and public administration at UND, pointing to Hoeven's earlier time as governor and describing his “independent base of credibility with North Dakotans.”
Wood said that could give him more latitude as impeachment proceedings wear on, perhaps to express doubt about the president —especially given the unpopularity of Trump’s recent decision to pull back U.S. troops in northern Syria, exposing U.S. allies to danger. It also means that, should something particularly unsavory emerge about Trump, Hoeven could have more rhetorical room to maneuver than Cramer.
“I would much rather be John Hoeven than Kevin Cramer,” Wood said.
But Hoeven has still stood consistently in defense of the president. Most notably, he co-sponsored the same resolution that Cramer supports, condemning House Democrats’ impeachment investigation.
“I do not believe the president should be impeached, especially when the process lacks transparency and is conducted behind closed doors,” Hoeven said in a statement this week. “This resolution urges the House of Representatives to respect precedent as well as provide the president with due process.”
And Mark Jendrysik, another UND political scientist, said Trump’s popularity in North Dakota gives Hoeven little flexibility. Breaking substantively with the president, especially on impeachment, he said, would seriously jeopardize Hoeven’s political future in the state.
When invited to comment broadly on impeachment proceedings, Hoeven’s staff referred the Herald to his recent comments on Democrats’ handling of the matter.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is the only regional senator who also is running for president, which Wood is quick to point out means that she’s answering to a different constituency right now than Minnesotans, strictly speaking. She also has to keep an eye on how voters feel about impeachment in Florida, Ohio, Michigan and other swing states across the country. She notably launched her presidential campaign with a dig at Trump, quipping to reporters at an outdoor rally with freezing temperatures that “I would’ve liked to see him out here in the snow for an hour giving this speech.”
She’s a firm supporter of impeachment proceedings. When her office was asked for comment on the recently introduced resolution condemning Democrats’ handling of impeachment, a staff member referred the Herald to previous comments on Trump, citing her travel commitments and the funeral of Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat.
“Yesterday, the House of Representatives announced the start of an impeachment inquiry into the president and his actions while in office and I called for and support that proceeding,” Klobuchar said in late September. “The president has violated the public’s trust. We have a responsibility to the American people to hold the president accountable and protect the United States and our constitution.”
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., has taken positions similar to Klobuchar’s and represents a state that disapproves of Trump by a comfortable margin — 54 percent disapproval, 43 percent approval, per recent numbers from Morning Consult.
But she surely knows that Trump nearly won Minnesota in 2016, and has taken a more moderate tone in some of her comments. Smith’s staff also referred to prior comments when asked for an opinion on the pending Senate resolution on House Democrats’ investigations. A notable difference between her comments and Klobuchar’s is her interest in listening "to all the evidence before making a final judgment.” That’s different than Klobuchar’s assertion that Trump “violated the public’s trust.”
“Amid reports that the president asked or even actively pressured Ukraine, a foreign government, to interfere in our country’s democracy by undermining a political opponent, we must fully and fairly open a process to lay out all the facts,” she said in a late September statement. A staff member said that still describes her feelings about the matter.
However, she also referred to “grave concerns” on Friday during an event in the Twin Cities area, as reported by Minnesota Public Radio.
“Based on what we’ve heard from Mr. Taylor (a witness interviewed by House members) and what the president himself has said, we have grave concerns, I have grave concerns, about national security and abuse of power,” Smith said during a community hearing in Oakdale, according to Minnesota Public Radio. “It’s important we do this impeachment proceeding.”
“I think (Klobuchar and Smith are) interesting in that they’re kind of like Cramer and Hoeven,” Wood said, likening Cramer’s close ties to Trump to Klobuchar’s inverse need to appeal to a nationwide swath of Democratic voters. That leaves Smith, like Hoeven, less directly tied to presidential politics.