It was clear and frosty on Capitol Hill on Thursday, and Republican congressman Will Hurd was sprawled across a leather chair in his office. He’d just come from the House floor, where he’d been giving a speech on the new trade deal to replace NAFTA—an issue that would likely impact his Texas constituents more directly than the previous night’s impeachment vote. Yet here he was, explaining his decision—surprising to some—to join with his fellow Republicans and reject the impeachment of the president.
“My definition of impeachment is a violation of the law. I’ve said that for years, that’s my standard,” Hurd told me. “I have not been bashful in my criticism of many of the foreign policy positions this administration has taken. Again, doing the second most serious thing a member of Congress can do—the first being sending troops to war—and this is where Speaker Pelosi is right: It should be clear, it should be compelling, it should be unambiguous, and it should be bipartisan, and none of those things were met. Impeachment is not a rebuke of policy. Impeachment is a violation of the law... The case that was being laid out was for bribery and extortion, and the evidence for either of those wasn’t there.”
If any Republican had been ripe for switching sides on impeachment—especially on an impeachment centering on foreign policy—it was Will Hurd. Before running for Congress in 2014, Hurd had been an undercover CIA officer, serving in hot spots like Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a congressman, he’s been critical of his party’s approach to minorities. (“Don’t be a racist,” he said at a meeting of LGBT Republicans. “Don’t be a misogynist, right? Don’t be a homophobe. These are real basic things that we all should learn when we were in kindergarten.”) He has taken an active and independent approach to international affairs and has often been critical of Trump’s iconoclasm. Last year, after Trump’s alarming joint press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Hurd penned an op-ed in The New York Times excoriating the American president for being a pawn in the former KGB agent’s disinformation campaign. Then, in August, Hurd, the only black Republican in the House, announced that he would retire next year at the end of his third term. Democrats figured Hurd might be persuadable. He wasn’t.
A month ago, when the White House’s former Russia adviser Fiona Hill testified before the House Intelligence Committee, Hurd signaled where he stood on impeachment. Instead of asking Hill questions, Hurd delivered a set of remarks, saying that while he disagreed with Trump’s “bungling foreign policy,” the president’s actions nonetheless did not rise to the level of impeachable conduct. (He had decided even earlier than that, he told me. The day before Hill testified, Hurd, who had already participated in her closed-door deposition, says he realized that no new evidence was forthcoming and he was ready to make up his mind.)
Still, advocates of impeachment held out some hope that Hurd would come around. But on Wednesday night, he stuck to his guns and voted “no” on both articles.
The backlash from the national security world was immediate and unsparing. “This will be a black mark on @HurdOnTheHill’s long record of service,” tweeted Susan Hennessey, executive editor of Lawfare and a former lawyer for the NSA. John Sipher, a former CIA operative and a veteran of the agency’s Russia desk, remarked that Hurd made a “big mistake today.” Hurd was “taking a dive on impeachment,” wrote one national security reporter. “Do they have something on him?”
The fact that Hurd was retiring and still voted “no” was especially galling to this community. Surely, a national security hawk on the verge of liberating himself from the concerns that come with facing re-election every other year could have voted his conscience—and surely, given his critiques of the president’s behavior, that conscience would lead him to support Trump’s impeachment. “Hurd’s stance on #Impeachment is no longer one of a purported moderate who is not seeking reelection to office,” tweeted former Pentagon special counsel Ryan Goodlaw.
This is a part of a constant and larger pattern on the left and among the commentariat: the cresting wave of hope that a reasonable and moderate Republican will shed his or her disguise and take a stand against the president, followed by its inevitable yet heartbreaking crash against the rocks of Washington’s political reality that, short of pulling a Justin Amash and leaving the GOP, Republicans will always vote the party line.
“It’s wishful thinking,” says Republican strategist and former Republican Hill staffer Doug Heye of the liberal hope that Republicans will suddenly see the light and vote with Democrats. “I have no idea where this hope comes from, but probably from West Wing,” says Princeton historian Kevin Kruse. “It’s the Hollywood fantasy that, at the eleventh hour, people will do the right thing.” The fact that Republicans cross the aisle less and less frequently, Kruse says, can be traced back to the early years of the Obama presidency, when people like Mitch McConnell said that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Obama, who put two Republicans and his former primary rival Hillary Clinton in his cabinet, was talking about a new era of post-partisanship, and, Kruse says, Republicans saw that this was his Achilles' heel. “What McConnell and Cantor explicitly said was that the key to defeating Obama was to deny him any bipartisan successes,” Kruse explains. This led to such stringent party discipline that when Cantor, as House majority leader, tried to find a compromise with the Obama White House on immigration, he was primaried from the right and lost. “So I think it’s no surprise that after a decade of this...that entire caucus is worried and constantly looking over their shoulder,” says Kruse.
But Republicans only help fuel the continuing delusion that they just might cross the aisle at the very last minute. They’re constantly asked to respond to the outrageous, xenophobic, sexist, racist, vaguely treasonous remarks of Donald Trump, a man many Republicans hated before being forced by the election and their base to embrace. When they are, GOP lawmakers will wink and nudge and mouth, “I’m not with this guy” in an attempt to appear reasonable—only to then obediently vote the party line. Think of Paul Ryan when he was House majority leader. Before the 2016 election, Ryan said Trump’s slurs of Judge Gonzalo Curiel were the “textbook definition of a racist comment.” But after gauging the attitudes of Republican voters and deciding he was unwilling to deal with a President Hillary, Ryan publicly voted for Trump anyway. And even total Trump sycophants like South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham criticize Trump from time to time, almost as if to assure the public—and themselves—that there’s still a working conscience in there somewhere.
And liberals eagerly, hungrily fall for it. In the run-up to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation vote, liberals waited with bated breath in the hope that Maine’s Susan Collins and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, both moderate Republicans, would finally see the light and join the Democrats in voting down his nomination. Collins was publicly on the fence and Flake, who had written a book and given floor speeches trashing Trump, had announced he was retiring. He even said he wanted the FBI to look into allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted several women. When both Flake and Collins ultimately voted with their party and for Kavanaugh, the rage, from The New York Times to Saturday Night Live, was real and it was brutal. (Hell, even I snarked that Flake’s last name spoke volumes.)
Flake is puzzled by this logic. “I got a little frustrated with that when I was in the Senate, when people said, ‘Oh, you voted with the president on Obamacare,’ or, ‘Oh, you voted with the president on taxes,’ ” Flake told me when I asked him about why he voted with Trump even after announcing his retirement—and blaming that retirement on Trump. “I had voted 34 times to repeal Obamacare. Should I now switch because the president shares my position? I’ve always voted to cut corporate taxes, should I now switch because the president does, too?”
“The big one I faced was Kavanaugh,” Flake explained. “I was retiring, I had no reason to support him. In fact, I spent my last ten months holding up more than 40 judicial nominations, but that served a purpose. But I couldn’t bring myself—it would’ve been immensely satisfying to me to pop the president in the nose by denying Kavanaugh’s ascent. But would it have been the right thing to do? Is that a precedent you want to set that an uncorroborated allegation is enough to disqualify someone? I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”
And even now, fully out of office, enjoying his time as a fellow at Harvard, and nowhere near an election, Flake says he wouldn’t vote to impeach. Like Hurd, he thinks Trump acted improperly in his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, but says that it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment.
Hurd had similar thoughts. One doesn’t stop being a Republican or a conservative merely because one leaves office—or dislikes Trump. “Whether or not I’m retiring doesn’t mean I change my behavior,” he responded when I asked him why his impending retirement didn’t affect his vote. “If people expect me to change, then they’re mistaken.”
Of course, it’s not always a matter of simple conservative conviction. It’s also a matter of cynical political calculus—and representative democracy working exactly as it should when polls show Republican support for Trump at North Korean levels of enthusiasm. “The intensity of those numbers shows that it’s not that they just approve but that they really strongly approve, and oh, they’re vocal about it,” says Heye. “Members go home where they’re being asked, ‘Are you backing Trump strongly enough?’ It’s not just tax cuts and Kavanaugh. They back Trump before they back their members of Congress, in some cases people that have served for years.”
Take, for example, Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse. The young, baby-faced senator made himself a liberal media darling. He toured the late-night and Sunday-morning circuits with his heartfelt criticism of Trump, showing those liberal, coastal elites that even if he is a Midwestern Republican, he was a reasonable one. As late as October 2016, he was refusing to vote for Trump, and after Trump’s election, Sasse even went so far as to say he thinks daily about leaving the Republican Party. And yet, he voted with Trump 86 percent of the time. Still, Sasse’s criticism of Trump got him primaried from the right by a candidate who made the rhetorical gap between Sasse and the president a central part of his primary challenge. But after Trump magnanimously endorsed Sasse, Sasse dutifully shut down the criticism and, during the Senate’s hearing on the Department of Justice IG report, Sasse piped up with full-throated reprisals of the Steele dossier conspiracy theories and attacks on the very media that had given him star status.
It can be easy to be fooled by the young, reasonable-seeming Republicans like Sasse and Hurd. “People maybe get the impression that because he’s black, or because he represents a swing district, or because he buddies around with Beto, or because he’s reasonable on some policy issues, or because he’s young, that he’s some kind of secret Democrat,” says a Congressional staffer about Hurd, warning that in doing so, they forget one important thing: “He’s been surrounded by people his whole life who are Trump supporters.”
And even the Republican retirees are never really out of Republican politics. I asked Hurd what he plans to do after he steps down in January 2021. “I have some broader ideas to continue elevating issues like technology, border security, national security,” he said, musing uncommittedly about whether he can do that in academia or through a streaming series or on some company boards. He wants to help the Republican Party recruit more people of color so that the party “starts looking more like America.”
Okay, but really, though? I asked. Is he done running for office?
“If the opportunity’s there, I’ll evaluate it,” Hurd said. “I’m 42 years old. Everyone says I’m retiring; I’m just getting started.”
Julia Ioffe is a GQ correspondent.
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Originally Appeared on GQ