WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 25: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) attends the confirmation hearing for Vivek Murthy and Rachel Levine before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee February 25, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Murthy is nominated to be Medical Director in the Regular Corps of the Public Health Service ands U.S. Surgeon General and Levine is nominated to be Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo by Tom Brenner-Pool/Getty Images)
CNN  — 

There was a remarkable exchange on Sunday between ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Here it is:

Stephanopoulos: Former President [Donald] Trump is out on the campaign trail. He was out in Texas last night suggesting he may pardon those – if he were elected in 2024 – those who were part of the January 6th riots. Given that, can you imagine any circumstances where you could support his election in 2024?

Collins: Well, we’re a long ways from 2024. But let me say this, I do not think the president should have made – that President Trump should have made that pledge to do pardons. We should let the judicial process proceed.

Stephanopoulos: You say we’re a long way away from –

Collins: January 6th was a dark day in our history.

Stephanopoulos: It was. And you voted to convict President Trump as well. Why can’t you rule out supporting him in 2024?

Collins: Well, certainly it’s not likely given the many other qualified candidates that we have that have expressed interest in running. So it’s very unlikely.


Take a step back here. In the aftermath of the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, Collins felt that Trump’s action (and inaction) on that day merited a conviction in the then-president’s impeachment trial.

“Instead of preventing a dangerous situation, President Trump created one,” Collins said on the Senate floor to explain her vote in favor of Trump’s impeachment. “And rather than defending the constitutional transfer of power, he incited an insurrection.”

Which seems pretty conclusive, right? And it would, one might think, disqualify Collins from supporting Trump again.

Except, maybe, she was allotting for the possibility that Trump has changed since January 6 – realizing the wrongheadedness of his attempts to undermine the 2020 election and the damage he is doing to American democracy in the process.

But, well, no. Because on Saturday night in Texas, Trump showed that he hasn’t learned a damn thing from the events of January 6.

“If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt,” he said of the ongoing legal proceedings against him and his family.

And we know that Collins knew about Trump’s speech because Stephanopoulos tells her about it right before he asks whether she could envision herself supporting Trump in 2024.

So, why would she not be definitive and say something like: “For the same reasons I voted to impeach then-President Trump after January 6, I cannot support him if he runs for president in two years’ time”?

There are two possible answers to that question:

1) Collins, like most politicians, wants to avoid making any declarative pronouncements two years before an election – in order to preserve maximum flexibility for herself down the line.

2) Collins wants to stay as far off Trump’s radar as possible, and she knows that saying – on a Sunday talk show – that she can’t support him in 2024 is just asking for a nastygram from the former president that would make her week, month (and probably year) much more complicated.

And so, Collins hedges. The issue with a hedge like that is that Trump is a) openly insisting that the election was stolen and b) saying that if he gets in any legal trouble, he wants there to be “protests” around the country.

Positions like those make standing on the sidelines and saying “we’ll see” a non-option for any elected official who hopes to be seen as a principled leader within their party. Which apparently doesn’t include Collins.