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Sen. Thune on political impact of impeachment and Trump’s State of the Union

On Tuesday, senators took turns processing two weeks’ worth of arguments in the impeachment trial of President Trump, with each speaking in preparation for the Senate vote to acquit or convict on Wednesday. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why he feels the trial was thorough and what its political impact might be.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on tomorrow's vote on acquittal or conviction, we are joined now by two senators from different parties.

    First up, Senator John Thune of South Dakota. He is the second highest ranking Republican in the Senate. And he joins us from Capitol Hill.

    Senator Thune, thank you very much for being here.

    We just heard in Lisa's reporting that some Democratic senators are saying, the Republicans want to hide the truth from the American people. How do you answer that?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    I don't think that's true at all, Judy.

    If you look at the impeachment process that the Senate just went through, we heard almost 70 hours of testimony or responses to questions from the House managers and from the president's counsel, heard testimony from 13 witnesses, 193 video clips, and about 28,000 pages of documentation and evidence that was entered into the record.

    And so there is plenty — there is a body of evidence out there. The — I think they had a opportunity to make their case. They announced repeatedly during the course of these proceedings that the evidence they had was overwhelming, and I think — and also used other words like undisputed.

    And I think the opportunity for both sides to be able to be heard was there in the Senate. They both made their arguments. And now it's up to senators to decide.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, at this point, it does appear there will not be the votes to convict the president. He will be acquitted. He will remain in office.

    But what do you say to some Republicans who are — who have said what the president did in that phone call to the president of Ukraine was wrong, that it wasn't appropriate, and they don't believe he should be removed from office, but he made a mistake, that it was wrong?

    How do you respond to that?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Right.

    Well, and I think you heard a number of our members on our side articulate that point of view. I think you heard that from people like Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and others as well, who basically are of the view that, although they don't agree with what the president did, don't think it was appropriate, they don't see it as the grounds to remove him from office, and all the disruption and convulsive impact that would have on our society, our culture, and everything else.

    I mean, I think there is a real concern out there that the behavior of the president, the conduct by the president obviously isn't what some of our members would condone, but, at the same time, it didn't reach that threshold that would allow him to be, you know, removed from office.

    And I think there are some very serious consequences that members have to think through when you contemplate the idea that this would be the first time ever that a president would be removed from office. That's never happened in our nation's history.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you agree with them that what he did was wrong, what he said was wrong?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I just don't think, at this point — it's kind of a discussion that is past us.

    I think that there are many things the president does that I don't agree with. But I think, in this case, the question before the Senate is whether or not it constitutes grounds to remove him from office.

    And I think that is a very high bar, intentionally high, by the founders to make it a very extreme remedy to be used in very extreme circumstances.

    And a lot of our members concluded that while — although they didn't agree with the president's conduct, they just didn't think it reached that threshold.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    Do you think censure is a measure that should be considered by the Senate?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I don't think it will be. I know there is some discussion about that. Senator Manchin, I think, mentioned that today in his remarks.

    And there are some at least, I would say, very preliminary discussion about that. But it seems to me at least that, if that was an option, that was something that probably should have been rolled out much earlier.

    I think, once you have gone down the road to try and literally throw a president out of office, coming back and saying, well, let's censure him seems like probably at this point not something that would enjoy much support.

    But we will see. I don't — I can't speak for individual members, can have the opportunity, obviously, to make their statements and to propose solutions that fit their, I guess, desired outcome.

    But I think, at this point, we are going to have an act — an opportunity to act on impeachment, on removal tomorrow. I think that will probably be the final say in this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, tonight is the State of the Union address. The president will be speaking before the joint session of Congress.

    What do you want to hear from him tonight?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Well, I hope that he tries to move past the current unpleasantness and really focus on the future.

    I think it's important for him to talk about not only the things that he has done and where we are, but also where we're going. And I think he has a really pretty strong record to talk about when it comes to the economy, with respect to unemployment, wages, growth, and many of his policies, whether it's tax policy, regulatory policy, health care, energy, trade, have put us in a situation where people are seeing their standard of living improve.

    And wages have been up. And so there is a good story there. But I think that, you know, what he needs to do tonight is, in a very optimistic way, a very hopeful way, talk about what he wants to do to build on that and to really take that foundation and use it as a springboard for the future.

    So I'm hoping it will be an optimistic message, a message that is visionary, hopeful, strong, and obviously talk as well about the important national security priorities that we need to address as we live in a dangerous world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House is saying that they believe the Democrats are the ones who are going to end up being most damaged by this impeachment process, because they brought something up that was a hoax in the first place and then it failed.

    And they say the president has been helped by this entire process. Do you see it that way?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I think the politics of it will play out over the course of the next several months.

    I do know that I was a member of the House when President Clinton was impeached, and that, through that process, his numbers went up and ours went down. And it seems like, in this case, that if you're just looking at the raw politics of it, I think the president — a lot of people around the country think that this was an extreme measure and don't think it was fair, don't think he was treated fairly or given due process.

    And as a result of that, it seems at least that he has gained a little bit, if you will, politically. And I think there has been some definite negative impact, adverse impact on the Democrats as a result of it.

    But, you know, the election is a long ways away. Several months from now, people will be thinking about other issues, focused on other things. And this will probably be something that, by that point, may be a distant memory. But we will see.

    All I know is from experience. When we went through this in 1999, that was certainly — certainly the effect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator John Thune, thank you very much.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Thanks, Judy.

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