On Impeachment, Iowa’s Senators Embraced the Party of Trump

Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley posed for a photo with Trump at his State of the Union address before voting to acquit him, earning Grassley praise from the president as he celebrated the occasion and sought retribution

Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst pose for a photo with Donald Trump at the State of the Union address in February 2020. Photo: @SenJoniErnst/Twitter

Walking through the halls of Congress en route to the House floor for President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening, Joni Ernst shot a selfie video, grinning from ear to ear as she pointed to a Senate colleague who followed closely behind. “Hey, guys! Hey, I’ve got Marsha Blackburn with meee!”

Ernst shared a hearty chuckle with Blackburn, a fellow Trump loyalist — or “Trump in a wig,” in the eyes of Taylor Swift, who’s accused the junior senator from Tennessee of having retrograde views on women’s rights. The two lawmakers recently co-sponsored a bill to strengthen penalties against female genital mutilation but have also both been criticized for opposing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. It was less sordid company than Blackburn had kept three years earlier, when she met with another member of Iowa’s congressional delegation, Steve King, and his political allies in the far-right, neo-Nazi infested Freedom Party of Austria shortly ahead of the president’s inaugural address.

Less than 24 hours after posting her video to Twitter, Ernst would vote to acquit Trump on the two articles of impeachment he faced, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The grin she wore was a familiar sight. With a similarly bubbly demeanor the previous week, Ernst seized the spotlight at a press conference held during a recess in the Senate’s trial.

“Iowa caucuses, folks, Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening,” she beamed, taking aim at Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, whose campaign Trump sought to undermine by attempting to pressure the Ukrainian government into announcing an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of Burisma, a corrupt energy company in the Eastern European nation. “And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point? Not certain about that.”

Spoken by a senator who is widely seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection this year and was already grappling with unwanted headlines over a ranking that named her the third-least popular member of the upper chamber, the remarks were quickly picked apart by critics. Ernst, they argued, had just tacitly acknowledged the extensively documented truth that Republicans had been denying from the start: Far from having a genuine interest in rooting out corruption in Ukraine, Trump’s intention was to improve his reelection prospects by sending his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, on a mission to dig up — or manufacture — dirt on the politician the president saw as his strongest adversary.

On Feb. 1, Ernst appeared to go even further, warning that Biden “should be very careful” now that his party had “lowered the bar” for impeachment. Should he defeat Trump in November, she suggested, he himself could be “immediately” impeached for “turning a blind eye” to his son’s involvement with Burisma. Ernst walked back this latest remark on the day before the State of the Union, claiming she’d been taken out of context.

But that same day, Biden finished a distant fourth in the Iowa caucuses — “a gut punch,” he called it — and if Ernst was succumbing to any pressure over the impeachment trial, she didn’t show it in the video she tweeted the following evening. Teasing Trump’s address after introducing Blackburn, she gushed, “We’re expecting to hear some really great things, just wonderful — things that the president wants to do in the upcoming years, and some of the great things that he’s done over the past number of years as well.”

True to form, Trump’s address in reality was a litany of misleading claims and outright lies about subjects including the strength of the economy, healthcare, and public schools. It didn’t much matter. The State of the Union was soon largely overshadowed by feigned outrage toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who ripped up a transcript of the speech on national TV as Trump drew to a close in front of her; and news the next day of the president’s acquittal in the impeachment trial.

In a fundraising email sent out an hour before the Senate began tallying the trial’s final votes, the Iowa GOP slammed “Petty Pelosi” for her theatrics. Employing a well-worn tactic, the pitch then attempted to tie the San Francisco lawmaker to Iowa Democrats, in this case by suggesting that the state’s two first-term members of the House, both of them women who supported Trump’s impeachment, were incapable of acting on their own accord.

“Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer didn’t even clap for a single thing unless Nancy allowed it — not even when President Trump announced 10 million people have been lifted off of welfare,” the email read, citing a claim that was at best a half-truth lacking statistical evidence. “It’s clear that they’re unhinged obstructionists who need to be voted out of office.”

The hypocrisy was glaring. When public hearings for the impeachment inquiry began last November in the House Intelligence Committee, Steve King was notably absent, having been stripped of his assignment for defending white nationalism in an interview with the New York Times. But fellow Trump loyalist Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican, became one of Trump’s most aggressive defenders, like King dismissing the inquiry as a partisan sham. Evidence later emerged that Nunes himself was directly involved in Giuliani’s efforts to undermine Biden, which included promoting a baseless conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that hacked the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election; and claiming without evidence that Biden attempted to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired in order to protect his son over corruption allegations that appear to have predated his time at Burisma. Before the trial began in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News host Sean Hannity, “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel.” Throughout all of this, the Republican members of Iowa’s congressional delegation toed the party line, ignoring the mounting evidence of Trump’s guilt and opposing efforts to compel testimony from members of the president’s inner circle who were in on the plot while attempting to refocus attention on the Bidens.

The language of the email illustrated the Iowa GOP’s Trumpian transformation under Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, whose son and inheritor of his seat in the Iowa House, Bobby Kaufmann, mocked liberals after the president’s election in 2016 by proposing a “Suck It Up, Buttercup” bill. The elder Kaufmann’s rhetorical bombast, in his routine verbal assaults on Iowa news outlets and political opponents, is reminiscent of Trump’s in its tone and brazen dishonesty.

Responding to a statement from the campaign of Theresa Greenfield, Ernst’s likely general election rival, that criticized the senator’s vote to prevent Trump officials from testifying in the Senate, Kaufmann tweeted that the Democratic challenger “would’ve voted to overturn the votes of thousands of Iowans based on baseless partisan hatred” of the president. “She may as well kiss her fairytale hopes of representing Iowans in the Senate goodbye,” he added.

However, as with Ernst, support for Trump in Iowa is not as robust as Kaufmann would have you believe. A poll commissioned by CNN and the Des Moines Register and released in mid-January estimated that 43 percent of Iowa voters approved of Trump’s impeachment, with 45 percent opposed. By a relatively close 48-40 margin, the respondents said they didn’t want to see him removed from office. Although he won the state by a wide margin in 2016, Trump’s approval rating here is underwater. In the 2018 midterms, Republicans mostly dominated local and statewide races, but two of their three incumbent House members, David Young and Rod Blum, were unseated by Axne and Finkenauer, respectively — losses attributed in part to the president’s unpopularity.

As Axne and Finkenauer joined all but four of their Democratic House colleagues in mid-December to approve the two articles of impeachment against Trump, Iowa’s most powerful federal lawmaker, Chuck Grassley, was ready to come to his defense. “Today marks the first partisan impeachment of the president of the United States in modern history,” said Grassley, who as president pro tempore of the Senate — third in the line of presidential succession — swore in Chief Justice John Roberts to preside over the trial.

For a history buff, Grassley’s assertion was absurd on its face. When Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, the speaker of the house was Newt Gingrich, an ardent foe of the president’s who aggressively pushed for impeachment and whose vicious, zero-sum brand of politics set the stage for today’s hyperpartisan Congress and the rise of Trump.

The assertion, premised on the fact that no House Republicans broke ranks with Trump, was also politically premature. Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Mitt Romney made an emotional appeal to his religious convictions as he explained why he would support the abuse of power article, becoming the first senator in US history to vote for the removal of a president from his own party. “My promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside,” he said, acknowledging that his decision would open himself up to attacks from fellow Republicans. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”

“I’ve never been ashamed of a vote I cast… until today,” Kaufmann tweeted in response. “@MittRomney’s sanctimonious hunger for the spotlight is appalling.” Whatever his true motivation, Romney’s actions contrasted starkly with those of Ernst and Grassley, who eagerly posed for a photo-op with Trump the previous night at the State of the Union address. The Iowa senators’ support for the president also contrasted starkly with their own past statements on impeachment.

At a candidate forum in January 2014 when she first ran for the Senate, Ernst argued that President Obama had “become a dictator,” suggesting he should be impeached if the Supreme Court ruled that recess appointments he made in an effort to circumvent GOP obstruction were unconstitutional, which it later did. “He is running amok,” Ernst said of Obama. “He is not following our Constitution, and unfortunately, we have leaders who are not serving as leaders right now, they’re not defending the Constitution, and they’re not defending you and me.”

But when the US Government Accountability Office concluded last month that Trump violated the federal Impoundment Control Act by withholding appropriated military aid to Ukraine — part of his pressure campaign against Biden — Ernst dismissed the report as “moot” because Ukraine eventually got the aid after a whistleblower exposed the scheme. When House Impeachment Manager Adam Schiff referenced a CBS News article that reported Trump had threatened retaliation against Republican senators who dared vote to convict him, Ernst dismissed that report as “baloney,” saying she tuned Schiff out when “he got to the part where he just completely made a bunch of bullcrap up.”

And three days before the vote, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Ernst maintained that that Trump — who struck business deals with the mafia and was recently fined $2 million for misusing his foundation at a veterans fundraiser in Iowa that doubled as a 2016 campaign event — was interested in fighting corruption but “did it maybe in the wrong manner” in Ukraine. “I think that he knows now that, if he is trying to do certain things, whether it’s ferreting out corruption there, in Afghanistan, whatever it is, he needs to go through the proper channels,” she said.

In February 1999, Grassley voted to convict President Clinton on the two articles of impeachment against him, perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The charges stemmed from a wide-ranging, $70 million investigation into allegations of wrongdoing and a separate sexual harassment lawsuit. Explaining his votes then, Grassley said that Clinton’s actions had “a profound impact on our society,” adding that his “breach of trust has eroded the public’s faith in the office of the presidency” and resulted in the “collapse of the president’s moral authority.”

But in a Feb. 3 floor speech two days before he voted to acquit Trump on both articles of impeachment, Grassley avoided criticizing the president. He later snuck a slight critique of Trump’s actions into a transcript of the speech he submitted for the Senate record, saying that “the president’s request was poorly timed and poorly executed, and he should’ve taken better care to avoid even the mere appearance of impropriety.”

Shortly before Wednesday’s impeachment vote, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., posted a photo on Instagram of Mitt Romney wearing high-waisted jeans, calling him a “pussy” and arguing he “should be expelled from the @GOP” for revealing that he planned to vote to convict the president.

Almost immediately after the vote, Grassley announced his intentions to begin investigating Hunter Biden, as Trump had attempted to pressure Ukraine to do in violation of federal law, and that he had already requested documents from the Secret Service relating to Biden’s business activities in Ukraine and China during the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has invited Rudy Giuliani to provide it documents for its own investigation into the unsubstantiated allegations against the Bidens.

During a press conference held Thursday to celebrate his acquittal, Trump praised Grassley for questioning another of his rivals, former FBI Director James Comey, in 2018 about whether he leaked information about investigations into Hillary Clinton or the Trump campaign to the press. “He’s got this voice that scares people,” Trump said, before falsely claiming that Grassley’s questioning led to Comey admitting guilt. “You know, people from Iowa can be very tough,” the president added in a gruff voice, eliciting laughter from Grassley. “We’re doing very well in Iowa.”

The next day, in retaliation for their testimony against him in the impeachment inquiry, Trump fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Iraq war veteran who was a National Security Council staffer, and Gordon Sondland, the president’s ambassador to the European Union.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.