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‘It’s The Party of Trump.’ How House Republicans Stayed Unified on Impeachment

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

In the heat of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made sure he checked in with his Republican colleague and longtime friend, Florida lawmaker Francis Rooney. Democrats were rushing the investigation, McCarthy reminded Rooney, according to a source familiar with the exchange, and he wanted to make sure Rooney had access to the facts and knew he could come to him with any questions.

Rooney was one of many members McCarthy spoke with throughout the process, but it was a critical moment given the lawmaker’s concerns. Democrats were in the midst of leading closed-door depositions as part of their probe assessing if Trump had leveraged foreign assistance to Ukraine in exchange for a promise of an investigation into a political rival, and the information coming from the hearings was damaging. Rooney, who heard the testimonies as a member of one of the committees conducting the inquiry, had told reporters he was considering breaking with the party to vote for Trump’s impeachment. It was the furthest any Republican had publicly gone in acknowledging that President’s conduct was potentially impeachable.

But in the end, Rooney voted against impeachment, and Republicans stayed unified — a major win for the party that followed a months-long campaign of briefings and email blasts by House leadership. “Never in the history of our country has a president been impeached on a party-line vote,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise told TIME in an interview in his Capitol Hill office on the eve of the vote.

The accomplishment is a blow to Democrats, who now face an election year with the risk that voters view impeachment as a partisan-motivated power play rather than an honest defense of the constitution. When Democrats formally launched the impeachment inquiry nearly three months ago, Republicans’ unity was hardly a given. No one knew what would emerge from the ensuing investigation. The road toward impeachment for both Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, while divisive, had ultimately wielded bipartisan support, so much so in Nixon’s case that he chose to resign rather than face the circus in Congress. Republicans knew that their best weapon against the almost inevitable prospect of Trump becoming the third commander-in-chief in U.S. history to have an impeachment asterisk next to his name was party unity.

Rooney’s office declined to comment. But two days before Rooney spoke out, Scalise had held the first of what would become weekly impeachment briefings for members. Huddled in the basement of the Capitol, Republicans would hear from the lawmakers sitting in on the closed-door depositions, such as Reps. Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, John Ratcliffe and Lee Zeldin, who discounted the narrative emerging in testimony that Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had orchestrated a shadow foreign policy to push Ukraine to conduct politically beneficial investigations. Senators Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson, two of Trump’s top defenders, also made appearances, according to a whip source.

“My objective has always been to get the facts to our members,” said Scalise. When the inquiry first began, he argued, Democrats were cherry picking information to spotlight from the closed-door hearings that were putting some Republicans in a bind because they couldn’t access the full testimony. “It raised all these questions,” he said.

The key point the lawmakers repeatedly hammered home at these briefings, Scalise said, was the witnesses’ lack of firsthand knowledge of the President’s intentions. “It’s one thing to say, well, I’ve heard a rumor that somebody did something bad. It’s another thing to then have talked to somebody who said, ‘Well no I never saw the person do that. It never happened,” he explained. “And so that was our objective.”

Both McCarthy and Scalise were in contact with members who had questions or concerns – like Rooney – throughout the process, sources said. Beginning on October 2nd, McCarthy’s office has circulated an e-mail every morning to Republican members of the House. The inaugural e-mail, obtained by TIME, was described as “daily guidance on the Democrats’ attempts to undo the 2016 election and impeach the President.” The days often closed with an e-mail from the office of Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, the third-highest Republican in the House, highlighting key quotes the party believed was essential to their story-line absolving the President, according to a leadership source. Scalise’s team circulated eight emails known as “whip tips” with statistics like the number of Democrats who supported impeachment before the Ukraine allegations surfaced.

The strategy clearly worked. These coordinated efforts succeeded in uniting the party in ways that even surprised its own members. Current and former Republican congressional aides marveled – and were also, they admitted, mystified – at how Rep. Elise Stefanik, hailed as one of the conference’s most bi-partisan members, stood side by side with Jordan, a founding member of the conservative Freedom Caucus and one of the lower chamber’s most notorious rabble rousers. McCarthy, never a natural ally of Jordan, placed him intermittently on the Intelligence Committee during the public hearings to maximize his effect as Trump’s top attack dog. “We’ve never been this united,” Rep. Mark Meadows, another founding member of the Freedom Caucus and a close Trump ally, boasted as he left his party’s weekly meeting Tuesday evening.

Rep. Peter King, a retiring lawmaker from New York who opposed the impeachment of both Trump and Clinton, credited this sense of unity to the universal disgust with what Republicans viewed as a rushed and biased process. House Republicans, King said, “have been sort of driven toward [Trump] by this, not because of his presidential leadership, but because they do feel that Democrats overplayed their hand, and this is not something that warrants impeachment.”

Democrats’ frustration is palpable. While the party leadership knew that the polarized environment made the prospect of a bipartisan impeachment highly improbable, they still had an inkling of hope that fresh evidence might compel some Republicans to break with their party. But few Republicans in the House would even admit what some Democrats did when defending Clinton against impeachment: that the President’s conduct was wrong, but not impeachable. The number of lawmakers who have criticized either Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president or the evidence that has come up in the subsequent congressional investigation has been limited to the most moderate members of the caucus, like Rooney and Reps. Fred Upton and Brian Fitzpatrick. “The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump. It’s the difference between that Congress and this one,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, displaying the rare emotion, semi-thundered from the dais at the close of his committee’s last public impeachment hearing. “Where is Howard Baker? Where are the people who are willing to go beyond their party to look to their duty?”

Republicans outside of Congress say the difference this time lies in Trump, his passionate base and the consequences of defiance. “Many House members are very unhappy with the President’s misbehavior and misconduct in office,” said one former Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “If there was a secret ballot vote, there would be a hell of a lot of Republicans voting for impeachment.” William Cohen, a former Republican lawmaker and Secretary of Defense under Clinton who broke with his party to support articles of impeachment during Watergate, said the fear of these consequences just reflects how the Republican party’s been redrawn in the President’s image. “It’s not the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s the party of Trump.”

The original version of this story included a GOP leadership aide saying that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer both met with Rep. Francis Rooney before the impeachment vote. Pelosi and Hoyer’s offices strongly deny the meeting ever happened. Because TIME cannot independently verify the meeting, reference to it has been removed from the story.

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com