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GOP gives Trump unapologetic embrace over impeachment

WASHINGTON (AP) — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on his Republican-led Senate Thursday to keep the impeached President Donald Trump in office, as the chamber edged toward a fray that spotlights the GOP's most unapologetic embrace yet of Trump.

“A political faction in the lower chamber has succumbed to partisan rage," said McConnell, R-Ky., a day after the Democratic-controlled House voted to impeach Trump, despite an extraordinary show of fealty by Republicans voting unanimously against the move. He added later: “‘The Senate must put this right. We must rise to the occasion."

The Senate seems certain to keep Trump in office with overwhelming GOP support in a trial likely to start in January. Coupled with House Republicans' solidarity Wednesday, that underscores a remarkable turnaround from four years ago, when many GOP lawmakers wanted nothing to do with the insurgent and inflammatory Trump campaign.

Now, the impeachment battle spotlights how firmly Republicans are tethered to a president whose loyalty from his party's core conservative voters is matched only by his opponents' loathing for him. Trump boasted about GOP unity during the impeachment vote. “You've never seen a Republican Party, zero negative votes. Zero,” he said Thursday. ”That hasn’t happened almost ever because the Republicans are not necessarily known for that.”

Yet it's unclear what the political impact on GOP candidates will be. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., uttered GOP blasphemy this fall when he said he was open to considering impeachment. He announced his retirement from Congress the next day. He ended up joining his colleagues in opposing impeachment Wednesday and said that vote further aligned his party to Trump.

“And that’s not necessarily the Republican Party that I’ve been part of and been a funder for, for many years,” he said. "This is a different era that we’re in for Republicans, and I don’t know where it’s going to go.”

“They are who they are,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday when asked about the lack of daylight between the president and his party's rank-and-file. She also challenged GOP lawmakers’ comments during Wednesday's debate comparing Trump’s impeachment to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

“Something's strange there,” she said. “Apart from the fact that they want to protect the president at the cost of the Constitution.” GOP solidarity behind Trump on impeachment contrasts with past battles over Trump priorities, such as his failed effort to repeal former President Barack Obama's health care law. Republicans strongly rallied behind him, but there were small but significant numbers of defectors.

In recent weeks, Trump's team has pointed to widespread GOP support for Trump as exemplifying the president's grip on his adoptive party and a cementing of the 2016 electoral realignment that sent Trump to the White House.

“I was not a Republican. Now I’m a Republican," said Jared Kushner, who was a Democrat before helping steer his father-in-law’s surprise victory three years ago. "I think the Republican Party is growing now that people like me feel comfortable being part of it.”

Just three months ago, initial revelations of a phone call in which Trump tried squeezing Ukraine's new president to announce an investigation into Democrats gave pause to some Republicans. But now, “Trump is strong as a tank with Republicans,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a member of the House GOP leadership.

While stopping short of abandoning him over Ukraine, several GOP lawmakers initially took a middle-ground position, saying they wanted to learn more about what happened. So party leaders held numerous impeachment briefings for lawmakers. Those sessions were aimed at making sure they were “getting information to people,” said No. 2 House GOP leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

GOP Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas moderate who’s clashed with Trump over immigration and other issues, was closely watched as the House Ukraine investigation progressed. Hurd, 42 and a former CIA agent, is not seeking reelection, leaving him freer than most Republicans to abandon Trump. But Hurd said last month that while Trump’s actions were “inappropriate,” he believed the president had committed no impeachable offense, making it harder for wavering moderate Republicans to defect.

In the short term, moderate Democrats from swing districts seem most at risk politically from the impeachment battle. Nearly all of them backed impeachment, which could be costly in next November's congressional elections. The most vulnerable include many of the 31 Democrats representing districts Trump won in 2016, most of whom are freshmen.

But Democrats and Trump's Republican critics said the House GOP's solid backing inextricably bound Republican lawmakers to Trump, ultimately inflicting a damaging blow. “For some period of time, the brand is going to be the Trump brand, which is divisive, misogynistic and unethical," said Peter Wehner, a Trump critic and Republican who served in the White House for three Republican presidents. “The people who are going to increasingly define American politics going forward are the ones who find Donald Trump most toxic.”

“They no longer have a governing philosophy. Their philosophy is whatever Trump says goes," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich. “No matter what it is, no matter how crazy it is, no matter how outrageous it is.”

With the impeachment vote coming just 11 months before the next presidential and congressional election, Republicans said they had no reason to fear any repercussions. Asked if it was risky for the GOP to unanimously align itself with Trump, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a member of House GOP leadership, said, "There is absolutely zero peril for the Republican Party to align itself with the Constitution.’’

__ Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed.

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