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N.C. Republicans Censure Sen. Burr Over Trump Impeachment Vote

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After last week's impeachment trial, some Republicans want to move the party beyond Donald Trump. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the ex-president was responsible for the attack on the Capitol. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse voted to convict, but he told us yesterday some Republicans are moving in the other direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEN SASSE: 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: In North Carolina, the state Republican Party voted to censure Senator Richard Burr, who also voted to convict. State party chairman Michael Whatley joined us to talk about it.

What did Senator Burr do wrong?

MICHAEL WHATLEY: Well, look. I think the party was definitely concerned with the senator's vote to convict in the impeachment, particularly after he had said and voted that it was unconstitutional.

INSKEEP: That, I can understand, although the Senate voted on the constitutionality and found it, by majority vote, to be constitutional. So he certainly was allowed to proceed on that basis, wasn't he?

WHATLEY: Well, look. I mean, he certainly was. And I think the key for the Republican Party and for the hundreds of activists and party leaders that I've talked to was pretty universal displeasure, disagreement with that particular vote. You know, as a member of the Senate, you have the absolute right to vote your conscience, how you feel. But at the same time, we felt that it was important to put out a statement saying that we disagreed with those actions.

INSKEEP: Did you agree with him on substance, that the president was responsible for provoking the riot on January 6?

WHATLEY: I think that what we saw on January 6 was absolutely horrific. It was beyond the pale. But at the end of the day, the people who attacked the Capitol bear the blame and the fault and the responsibility for attacking the Capitol.

INSKEEP: Does the president bear any responsibility for lying to them for months about the results of the election, including on the day of the riot?

WHATLEY: Well, I think the president certainly felt and still feels that there was massive voter irregularities across the country. And we certainly saw evidence of voting irregularities, of election counting irregularities in a number of places around the country.

INSKEEP: OK. There's several parts of that I want to follow up on. First is the facts about the election, and I think you know them. All 50 states certified the results of the election, Republican and Democratic officials. More than 60 court rulings did not change the result of the election. Many of the judges did look at evidence, so it would be false to say the courts did not look at the evidence. There were recounts in key states like Georgia. So any claim of meaningful fraud here would seem to be obviously fraudulent. Do you agree with that?

WHATLEY: Look, I was a member of the Electoral College, and I cast my vote proudly for Donald Trump here in North Carolina. But, you know, the Electoral College did vote, and they elected Joe Biden. And that's the way that the Constitution lays it out for us here in, you know, the United States. So I have no heartburn with the...

INSKEEP: Do you - in fact, if you can - do you agree with Mitch McConnell's statement that the people have spoken, that this was the voice of the people, electing Joe Biden?

WHATLEY: Yes. And I think that that was represented by the Electoral College.

INSKEEP: You say that you think the president somehow believed what he was saying, but he made these false statements for months. Do you not think that had anything to do with people's decision to go and attack the Capitol, saying as they did it that they were doing it for Trump because they believed what he told them?

WHATLEY: Look, I believe that the actions of those people who attacked the Capitol lie on those people who attacked the Capitol.

INSKEEP: What do you say to people who will listen to this and see it as simply an act of fealty to Mr. Trump, personal fealty to Mr. Trump?

WHATLEY: Well, look. You know, I think we - as a Republican Party, we saw the election here in North Carolina, where North Carolina delivered 2.75 million votes for the president. We saw that, you know, the Electoral College and the various states that submitted their slates to the Electoral College said that that was not enough and that Joe Biden won the election.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but I'm asking about your vote of censure for Richard Burr.

WHATLEY: You know, the concerns that were raised by the Republicans that I talked to all across North Carolina were that they disagreed with that vote, particularly in light of the fact that the senator had already said and voted that this was an unconstitutional proceeding.

INSKEEP: Can you imagine anything that would cause the party to criticize former President Trump? Can you imagine anything he could possibly do?

WHATLEY: I mean, I don't even really get the sense of the question that we're talking about. So no, I mean...

INSKEEP: Well, I just mean that...

WHATLEY: Look, I mean, if the president were to act in an illegal manner, I think that that would probably be something that we would want to address.

INSKEEP: We followed up on that statement. And if you listen closely, you can faintly hear Whatley's spokesman suggesting an answer.

So if there were criminal charges against the former president that might change your mind?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can't speculate.

WHATLEY: You know, I can't speculate on that.

INSKEEP: What would you say if you had a chance to talk to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who said there's no question - none - that President Trump is practically and morally responsible because of his false statements and conspiracy theories and shouting all that into the largest megaphone on planet Earth, as Mitch McConnell put it?

WHATLEY: Well, you know, I think, honestly, if I were going to have a conversation with Mitch McConnell, I would focus on the fact that we have an election in 2022, and North Carolina is going to have a vacant seat. And I know that he's looking at vacant seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania and that we're going to have a map that's going to be pretty tough. And I would also focus on the fact that we need the Senate right now to be focused on the American families and being able to get them back to work, their kids back to school and the economy back on its feet.

INSKEEP: I suppose Trump could be a factor in that 2022 election - right? - if he supports one candidate or another in North Carolina.

WHATLEY: Oh, absolutely. Yes. Any candidate that's going to go into, you know, an election cycle is going to have to embrace the "America First" agenda that he put on the table in order to be successful in a primary and, frankly, to be successful in a general.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that the party needs to stand behind former President Trump no matter what?

WHATLEY: No, I don't believe it does. I think that the party, you know, stands behind what the president did for North Carolina throughout his term. But, you know, there is no fealty test here.

INSKEEP: Mr. Whatley, thanks very much for your time.

WHATLEY: No problem. We appreciate you guys, and let us know when we can talk again.

INSKEEP: Michael Whatley is the Republican Party chairman of North Carolina. The party censured Senator Richard Burr for his vote to convict Donald Trump last weekend. Senator Burr is retiring in 2022, and the possible Republican candidates discussed for the seat include Trump's daughter-in-law.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "VAGEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.