‘Disturbed’: Murkowski didn’t mean quite what you thought she meant

Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks to reporters at the Capitol. File photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media

WASHINGTON – Sen. Lisa Murkowski rolls her eyes at the mention of all the nationwide attention she got for that one comment she made just before Christmas.

A reporter asked her about Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge of “total coordination” with the White House on impeachment.

“When I heard that, I was disturbed,” she said in the interview, on Anchorage TV station KTUU-Channel 2.

The comment then played on cable news for days. Liberal talk show anchors lauded Murkowski for standing up to party leadership. The New York Times called it a  “Stirring of conscience in the Senate.” Even weeks later, pundits cite her remark as evidence that President Trump may face a tough Senate trial. 

 “I don’t think that they actually listened to the whole interview,” Murkowski says, laughing.

Whatever hope or sorrow Americans projected onto Murkowski’s words, the senator says her point was about procedure.

“I went on to explain more fully what it is that we’re dealing with,” she said at the Capitol last week. “And what has been proposed, at that point in time, was the same thing that we have in front of us right now, which is that we should follow this Clinton model …”

For people who watch her closely, this episode was so Murkowski. When the eyes of the nation are upon her, looking to her to decide a tense political moment, she is brimming with nuance and talking about precedent. 

To partisans, Murkowski’s ways can be deeply unsatisfying. Conservatives complain she is not a “real” Republican. Liberals say she zig-zags, every step to the left followed by a step to the right. But Murkowski sees herself on a straight line, and that line is called “process.” Doing government by the rules. Following steps that senators before her have taken. It’s what she talks about when she talks about impeachment.

“I don’t want to come in and have this daily jump ball,” she said of the upcoming impeachment trial. “It needs to be a structure that is understood in the Senate, that the public understands it. And the public believes it to be fair.”

Murkowski sent the hopes of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans aloft with her “disturbed” comment. They know it’s unlikely Democrats can get 67 Senate votes to remove the president. But with Murkowski on board, maybe they could get the 51 votes it would take to guarantee witnesses would testify at the trial. 

On the first day back at the Capitol after the holidays, Murkowski deflated those hopes. She emerged from a meeting in McConnell’s office and told reporters she’s fine with his plan to start the impeachment trial and decide later whether to call witnesses. 

Murkowski watchers on social media saw this as a zig-zag. Murkowski had stepped away from the Republican fold when she criticized McConnell. Now, it seemed to many, she was back in line behind him, giving him the votes he needs to avoid calling witnesses at the start of the trial.

Murkowski says she’s been consistent – on process. She says she’s always advocated for the Senate trial to follow the phased approach of the Clinton impeachment. According to that program, the debate over witnesses is Phase 3.

“You have the managers that present, you have the senators that question,” she said, “and then we all have an opportunity to weigh in and say whether or not we need more information by way of witnesses, documentation (or) depositions.”

But doesn’t she want to hear from Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton? He’s declared he’s willing to testify.

“Am I curious about what what Ambassador Bolton would have to say? Yes, I am,” Murkowski admitted, then added she won’t “pre-judge” the need for him to testify until she hears Phases 1 and 2 of the trial.

And by the way, that “disturbed” comment that was the talk of the nation? Murkowski says she didn’t intend to take any grand moral stand that day. She points out it was the KTUU reporter who raised the question.

“I didn’t think that this was an act of conscience or an act of courage,” she says. “I answered a question honestly.”

Correction: A previous version of this story understated the number of senators needed to sustain an impeachment verdict.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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