The Republican from Nebraska speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep about the impeachment of former President Donald Trump, the future of the GOP and working with the Biden administration.



One of the Republican senators who voted to convict Donald Trump at his impeachment trial is Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Sasse joined a bipartisan majority that judged the former president guilty of inciting an insurrection. Most Republicans voted not to convict, though some said it was only because Trump is out of office now and that he did provoke the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Senator Sasse is on the line. Good morning, sir.

BEN SASSE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Reading your statement on your vote to convict, it seems clear you think the offense was more than what the president said on the day of January 6, that it was his long-running effort to overturn the election. Is that right?

SASSE: Yeah, I thought of it in sort of three buckets of time, the sort of post-election lie about widespread voter fraud sufficient to overturn the election and then the events of January 6 up until the mob attacked and then the events in the hours after when the president didn't exercise his duties as commander in chief to make sure our constitutional processes were safeguarded.

INSKEEP: Now, you said that this was an effort to uphold the Constitution, didn't happen. He wasn't convicted. Has the Constitution been defended here?

SASSE: I mean, obviously, I voted in a different way. And I wish more people would have voted the other way. But all I can do is tell you how I thought about it and sort of what I think we need to do to muster more American civics going forward. But in my view, impeachment trials are not chiefly about one man. They are that. But I think they're primarily a public declaration of what the oath of office means and of what kind of behavior we want of presidents in the future. And so I think that argument is a huge part of what happened over the last week and a half. And I think that discussion, not the Trump-centric piece but clarity about what a constitutional system requires - that conversation needs to be ongoing. We've neglected it for too long.

INSKEEP: Senator, we've followed the news from Nebraska. Some Republican county committees have voted to censure you, severely criticized you for your vote. And some want the state party to censure you. How would you describe the response you've been hearing from home?

SASSE: You know, I think my duty is to the oath that I've taken and the pledge that I made to voters the first time I ever ran for anything in my life in Nebraska's 93 counties. And my wife and I and our little kids visited all of them many, many times in 2013, '14. And as a part of our stump speech and again my election night speech in November of 2014, I said that my duty would be to uphold my conscience, even if it was against the partisan stream for a time. And so, obviously, there are a lot of people frustrated with me in Nebraska, but I think a lot of them also have the 6-1/2-year history with me, where they know that though I'm a very conservative guy, I'm pretty independent-minded. So I don't think they're really that surprised. But, obviously, there is a move at county and state levels across the country to have the Republican Party focus even more on the personality of Donald Trump. And I don't think that's healthy.

INSKEEP: So let me ask about the future of your party. Most Republicans voted to acquit, although some did say that Trump was responsible. Kevin McCarthy, the leader of Republicans in the House, has already been down to Florida to visit Donald Trump. Is this still Donald Trump's party?

SASSE: I mean, if you look at polling in the short term, it surely appears that way. But I think the longer term question is what we really need to look at. And we need to distinguish between conservatism and short-termism, if you will. I think it's important to give a frank assessment of where the party of Lincoln and Reagan is right now. And in just one term, the Republican Party has lost the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. That hasn't happened since Herbert Hoover got shellacked in 1932. So I think there's a whole bunch of stuff the party of Lincoln and Reagan needs to do to persuade people we have a 2030 agenda, not a 30-minute Twitter agenda.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the next couple of years, though. There's a large number of people in this country who seem to believe the lie that the election was stolen, who are still supporting the former president. And some number of them were willing to attack the Capitol a few weeks ago. A lot of experts in this area worry about more domestic extremism. And I want to note that you're on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees intelligence agencies. Is the U.S. properly prepared for more domestic extremism if it comes?

SASSE: Well, first, I want to I want to push back just on a tiny little bit at the beginning of your question there because I don't think we should bundle together the hundreds of violent mob rioters of January 6th and the 74 million Trump supporters, even though...


SASSE: ...A huge share of the latter category do still believe, you know, the untrue thing, the lie that the election was stolen. But the, you know, overwhelming, overwhelming majority of those people have no inclination toward violence. So I think we need to distinguish that. But to your point about serving on the Intelligence Committee, obviously, we do have a wide, wide range of threats. And what has happened, I think, in the post-2007 period - I'm naming the rise of the iPhone and mobile devices and faster download speeds - is a lot of people who historically might have believed very fringe things but have been geographically isolated - it's easier for them to find communities that have a lot more confirmation bias.

You and I have spoken in the past about how different media consumption is in a world where there are almost no barriers to entry to creating a new media organization. And so it becomes a lot easier for people to end up in a narrow, little, niche conversation where almost every fact - if the consumer is always right, you filter out almost every fact, in scare quotes, that they might not agree with. And so I do think that domestic radicalization is an issue we have to look at.

And I don't think it's primarily about an ideological spectrum. I think it's primarily about the decline of place and about the evaporation of thick communities of people you actually break bread with. So they think there's a lot more work we need to do. It's also important that our intelligence agencies get better at developing and utilizing tools that help filter out the sort of random chaos people talk about and actual operational planning. And we have a long way to go in the intelligence community to be ready for what the future holds.

INSKEEP: Oh, because somebody could just be a citizen saying something extreme and might even own a gun, but that's different than actually being someone who might attack someone. Is that what you're saying?

SASSE: Absolutely. There are all sorts of people who use rhetoric that have no actual connection to their actions. But then there are people who put the two together and we're going to need better intelligence tools in the future to filter out, you know, chaos and noise in actual operational planning.

INSKEEP: Ben Sasse is a Republican senator from Nebraska who voted to convict President Trump at his impeachment trial. Senator, thanks very much.

SASSE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.