Sen. Ben Sasse is one of seven Republicans who crossed party lines to vote to convict former President Donald Trump during his historic second impeachment trial.
The effort fell 10 votes short of the 67 needed to convict but served to fortify the junior senator from Nebraska’s bona fides as a conservative with an independent streak and put him further at odds with party leaders back home.
In a wide-ranging interview with NPR’s Morning Edition on Tuesday, Sasse said the Republican Party is in a battle between what he calls “conservatism and short-term-ism.”
He added that the GOP must plan for the future and how, in his view, impeachments are not about the individual office holder, but about the behavior the nation wants presidents to exhibit while occupying the White House.
“Not a 20-minute Twitter agenda”
“Is this still Donald Trump’s party?” host Steve Inskeep asked Sasse.
“If you look at polling in the short-term, it surely appears that way,” Sasse responded.
Sasse believes the party must take a broader view about where it ultimately wants to go.
“I think it’s important to give a frank assessment of where the party of Lincoln and Reagan is right now,” he added. “I think there’s a whole bunch of stuff the party of Lincoln and Reagan needs to do to persuade people we have a 2030 agenda, not a 20-minute Twitter agenda.”
On Trump’s 57-43 acquittal over the weekend, the most bipartisan Senate impeachment vote in history, Inskeep asked the senator if the Constitution had been upheld.
Sasse side-stepped that direct question and said he wished more of his Republican colleagues would have voted to convict Trump. He then focused on what he believes the larger role impeachment trials serve.
“In my view, impeachment trials are not chiefly about one man. They are that, but they’re primarily a public declaration of what the oath of office means and what kind of behavior we want of presidents in the future,” he said.
“Obviously there are a lot of people frustrated with me”
Prior to the impeachment vote, Sasse had already rubbed party leaders the wrong way in Nebraska. He released a video on Feb. 4 that took direct aim at the Nebraska GOP State Central Committee after reports surfaced that state party officials were considering censuring him, a formal and public measure of disapproval.
“Let’s be clear, the anger in the state party has never been about me violating principle or abandoning conservative policy,” Sasse, who was reelected to another six-year Senate term in the fall, said in the video. “The anger has always been simply about me not bending the knee to one guy.”
Inskeep asked what else he’s been hearing from constituents and GOP leaders in Nebraska.
“Obviously there are a lot of people frustrated with me in Nebraska, but I think a lot of them also have the six-and-a-half-year history with me where they know that though I’m a very conservative guy, I’m pretty independent-minded,” Sasse said.
“I don’t think they’re very surprised, but obviously there is a move at county and state levels across the country to have the Republican party focus, even more, on the personality of Donald Trump. And I don’t think that’s healthy.”
Domestic extremism and Trump voters
Sasse, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was also asked about domestic extremism. And given that many Trump supporters believe the election was stolen, is the U.S. properly prepared for more attacks like what was carried out at the Capitol last month.
The senator was quick to note that he was not lumping “the hundreds of violent mob rioters” that attacked the federal seat of government with the 74 million Americans who cast ballots for the former president.
While Sasse acknowledged a “huge share” of Trump voters believe “the lie that the election was stolen,” that does not mean Trump supporters are would-be insurrectionists.
More broadly, he said, with technological advances like smartphones, it is easier for people who follow fringe movements and were previously geographically isolated to “find communities with a lot more confirmation bias.”
“I do think that domestic radicalization is an issue we have to look at,” Sasse said.
“And I don’t think it’s primarily about an ideological spectrum. I think it’s primarily about the decline of place and about the evaporation of thick communities of people you actually break bread with,” he said. “So, I think there’s a lot more work we need to do.”
Sasse added that he believes there also needs to be better intelligence to filter out people who use heated rhetoric on social media, but are not inclined to act on those comments, from those who would carry out violence.
NPR’s Catherine Whelan contributed to this report.