In one state, the GOP accepted its senator’s vote of conscience. It wasn’t North Carolina.

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The Editorial Board
·4 min read
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What do you do when the U.S. senator in your party votes to find a rogue president guilty of betraying his presidential oath by inciting an attack on the U.S. Capitol?

Why, you censure the senator, of course. And, for good measure, you do it on President’s Day.

That’s how warped the reasoning is behind the North Carolina Republican Party’s decision on Monday to officially rebuke U.S. Sen. Richard Burr for voting to convict Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial. Party leaders said the three-term senator’s decision to vote his conscience defied the sentiment of his party.

“We felt it was important for the party to make a statement that we disagree with the vote,” N.C. GOP Chairman Michael Whatley said.

If anyone is hurting the North Carolina Republican Party, it isn’t Burr. It’s Whatley and other Republican leaders. They are demanding blind loyalty to Trump at the expense of broadening the party’s appeal and winning elections.

The Utah Republican Party showed the right way to respond to a Republican senator’s vote to convict when it refused to censure Sen. Mitt Romney. In a statement, the Utah GOP said: “The differences between our own Utah Republicans showcase a diversity of thought, in contrast to the danger of a party fixated on ‘unanimity of thought.’ There is power in our differences as a political party, and we look forward to each senator explaining their votes to the people of Utah.”

In contrast, North Carolina GOP leaders, including Republican congressmen, apparently think they can unify their party by splitting it. They want it to be a party of Trump loyalists with no room for those who think it’s time to move on from the deeply unpopular and divisive former president.

That split is already driving people from the party. In the two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, nearly 6,000 North Carolina Republicans changed their party affiliation. No doubt that number has grown since the impeachment trial exposed how Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election created the explosive situation and how he did nothing to stop the attack.

Party leaders say Burr ignored the Constitution with his vote to convict. The state’s senior senator had earlier voted that a trial would be unconstitutional because Trump is out of office and no longer subject to the process for removing a president. But once the Senate agreed to hold a trial, Burr felt it was his duty as a juror to vote according to what the facts made clear. He joined six other Republicans in a 57-43 vote that found the former president guilty, 10 votes short of the two-thirds needed for conviction.

Michael Gerhardt, a UNC School of Law professor and an authority on the impeachment process, said Burr’s vote was in accord with the Constitution’s remedy for holding a president accountable.

“Senator Burr’s vote to convict former President Trump was judicious and an act of political courage,” said Gerhardt, who served as special counsel to the trial’s presiding officer, Sen. Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. “Rather than be upset because he had lost the vote to dismiss the trial for lack of jurisdiction, he rose to the occasion by acknowledging that he would follow the will of the majority of the Senate to hold a trial, by paying attention to the facts and law, and by voting to convict in spite of the fallout that would come his way. Being censured by a party he has served well for decades says more about those censuring him than it does him.”

Some question Burr’s motives for his vote. He and the former president had conflicts over Burr’s work as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman and the senator certainly didn’t appreciate a drawn-out Justice Department investigation of his stock sales, which resulted in no charges.

But Burr’s vote was a politically difficult one that invited scorn he could have avoided. It was a vote of conscience, not spite. Of their vote to censure Burr, GOP leaders cannot say the same.