Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talks with reporters in the senate subway before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Tuesday, January 28, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Senator John Cornyn talks with reporters before the continuation of Donald Trump's impeachment trial in January. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

John Cornyn Bets Big on Trump

During the impeachment proceedings, Cornyn proved that his calculation is the same as the entire GOP’s: Live with Trump, die with Trump.


A version of this story ran in the March / April 2020 issue.

It’s become abundantly clear that U.S. Senator John Cornyn has no intention of distancing himself from Donald Trump, the man who will forever be immortalized in American history books as the third president to be impeached.

Cornyn has proved to be an immutable Trump ally throughout the president’s first term in the White House, but the senior senator from Texas extended that allegiance when he eagerly took on the role of a top Trump surrogate during impeachment proceedings. When the House’s hearings got underway in December, Cornyn insisted that the inquiry—which centered on Trump’s ham-handed plot to leverage military aid to Ukraine for political dirt—was a farce. As far back as October, at a time when Trump was even more embattled than usual, Cornyn made it clear that, come what may, he and his GOP colleagues wouldn’t budge. “Republicans, I don’t believe, think it’s in their long-term policy interest to divide the party in order to elect Democrats,” Cornyn told reporters. “That’s what I think the calculation is.” He even said he wouldn’t bother to watch or read any of the House testimony. “I’m just not going to—I do not approve,” he declared.

It’s worth remembering that Cornyn is no legal rube—he is a former Texas Supreme Court justice and state attorney general—but that hasn’t kept him from deploying a cynically partisan defense of the president. When the House voted before Christmas to impeach the president for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, initiating what was supposed to be an impartial Senate trial, Cornyn blasted out an email pledging to “wrap up this sham impeachment with an acquittal.” He willingly trotted out the party line that Trump had been impeached for a “non-crime over events that never occurred.”

Trump Houston Cornyn
John Cornyn speaks at a Trump rally in Houston in October 2018.  Gus Bova

More than a month later, just as the Senate trial was about to begin, news broke that Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton had detailed in a new book that the president directly ordered him to withhold aid until Ukraine investigated Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. This admission of direct knowledge that the president requested a quid pro quo prompted Senate Democrats to insist that witnesses like Bolton be allowed to testify before the Senate. Where did Cornyn stand? After musing earlier in January that Bolton’s testimony could actually bolster Trump’s case, Cornyn changed his tune, saying that the new revelation was “nothing different than what we’ve already heard.” Cornyn then helped Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ensure there were enough Republican votes to block witnesses from testifying. Trump’s acquittal became inevitable.

During Cornyn’s three tours of senatorial duty in Washington, he has never been too proud to genuflect to the powers that be. His unabiding deference to George W. Bush, McConnell, and, most recently, Trump has allowed him to enjoy a long and fairly prestigious career in Republican politics. But it has never made him a Ted Cruz-like star among movement conservatives.

His understated support is reflected in recent polling. About 30 percent of voters disapproved of Cornyn, and 31 percent had no opinion or didn’t know him, according to a January poll from The Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler. And though 38 percent of voters approve of the job he’s doing, his support among his own party’s voters could be better: Only 56 percent of Republican voters plan to support him in a GOP primary where he faces little-known challengers; more than a third weren’t sure how they’d vote.

Cornyn’s calculation is the same as the entire GOP’s: Live with Trump, die with Trump.

That may seem surprisingly weak for a longtime incumbent, but it’s not uncommon for the power brokers of Washington to be unpopular or unknown back home. Heading into a volatile presidential cycle where Cornyn will face a serious reelection battle, those numbers could present a challenge.

The 2020 elections will be among the most polarized in American history. Up and down the ballot, they will be a clear referendum on the president, so the importance of name recognition will be eclipsed by Trump affiliation. The most logical choice for swampy Republicans is to wrap themselves in the MAGA flag, wagering that Trump’s coattails will outmatch his toxicity in states like Texas.

A recent Cornyn campaign fundraising email sent to supporters as the trial began bears this strategy out. It read, in part, “Senator Cornyn will be a central figure in this trial, and he WILL fight against the Left’s radical tactics … he will fight FOR President Trump.” And the gamble appears to be working. At the end of January, Cornyn’s campaign reported that he had raised nearly $3 million over the prior three months, two-thirds of which came from small online contributions, an uptick his campaign team attributed to the GOP base’s backlash to Trump’s impeachment.

Cornyn’s calculation is the same as the entire GOP’s: Live with Trump, die with Trump.

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