Any respect that scores of Ohioans had for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman is long gone. It disappeared the day the Cincinnati Republican hopped aboard the Trump train and never looked back. He may have held his nose, but he was all in. We thought Portman would be different. We thought a Midwest sense of honor would steel him to do the right thing and not succumb to an amoral demagogue. After all, Portman had been repulsed enough by Trump’s sexual predatory boasts to revoke his endorsement of the man in 2016 and vote for someone else.
We thought Ohio’s junior senator was no pushover. We were wrong.
Portman’s cultivated image as a principled conservative quickly went up in smoke when he ditched the “principled” part to become a full-on Trump apologist. No matter what the disgraced ex-president said or did, regardless of how damaging, demeaning, or flagrantly dishonest, Portman was primed to paper over the malfeasance with excuses, rationalizations, uncritical rejoinders, or worst of all, silence.
Like so many other congressional Republicans who fell in line behind Trump, Portman chose job security through appeasement, voting with Trump positions nearly 90% of the time. He went along with a malevolent narcissist who controlled the party’s MAGA base and, by extension, incumbent politicians worried about being primaried if they crossed Trump. But Portman didn’t have to sell his soul to carry water for a con man drunk on the trappings of power. The senator’s reputation as a moderate Republican willing to craft and negotiate policymaking — even revisit old positions on social issues such as same-sex marriage — worked in Ohio where he never lost an election.
But there’s always a first.
Portman, who said last November that he planned to run for reelection in 2022, may have changed his mind because of the baggage he accrued as a prominent enabler of a lawless, twice-impeached loser who incited insurrection as his parting gift to a traumatized nation. If he ran for reelection, Portman would have to defend the indefensible. Things like rushing a Trump Supreme Court nominee to the bench even as voting was underway in the 2020 election — after arguing that an Obama Supreme Court nominee ten months before the 2016 election should be tabled because voters ought to have a voice in the makeup of the court by their choice of president.
Another untenable argument Portman floated during Trump’s first impeachment trial is equally flimsy and unforgiveable. While he conceded that Trump’s attempt to rig an American election, by extorting a political favor from a foreign ally in exchanged for military aid, was “wrong and inappropriate,” he posited that it didn’t quite rise to an impeachable abuse of power. Besides, the apologist reasoned, eventually Trump followed the law and released the congressionally appropriated aid to desperate Ukraine, so where’s the problem?
With Trump’s second impeachment trial set to begin soon, Portman has already signaled his willingness to give the ousted president a pass on inciting violent overthrow of a free, fair and secure election. He went along with most Republicans who voted for a (defeated) motion to dismiss the Senate trial outright. Sure, the insurrection inspired by Trump, that left five dead and risked the lives of hunted lawmakers, may have been “wrong and inappropriate.” But does an attempt to topple government to keep power really rise to an impeachable offense against that government?
Besides, the enabler may rationalize, eventually the MAGA mob left the desecrated Capitol and Trump left office, so where’s the problem? For weeks, Portman went along as Trump and Co. promoted the Big Lie about being cheated out of a second term because of widespread voter fraud. He indulged the defeated president’s false narrative about a stolen election, based on unproven or thoroughly debunked allegations, by suggesting that all the unsubstantiated legal challenges and multiple recounts (that didn’t change a thing) were legit on merit. They weren’t, but Portman couldn’t incur Trump’s wrath by telling the truth.
The senator didn’t even acknowledge the reality of Joe Biden’s victory for more than a month after the rest of the world did. Portman remained unconscionably silent as Trump ramped up his deranged crusade to stage a coup with fiery calls to right a fake wrong. Portman’s reticence to rebut the Big Lie, for the sake of democracy, allowed it to become rooted as undisputed gospel among millions of true believers waving Trump flags.
On the day Congress was set to affirm Biden’s Electoral College win, Trump’s revved-up supporters poured into Washington to “stop the steal” that never was. The scene was a powder keg waiting to explode and Trump was just the seditionist to light the fuse. He is directly responsible for the armed assault on our nation’s Capital to upend a sacred hallmark of our democracy — the peaceful transfer of power. Our collective rebuke must forceful and unambiguous. Such a grievous attack on our seat of government must not stand. Not ever.
Question is: Will Rob Portman, unencumbered by a 2022 campaign, finally do the right thing with the most impeachable offense committed by any president against this country? Or will history remember Portman for riding the Trump train until the very end, forever tarnished with shameful complicity for enabling the absolute worst.
Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.