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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

'Not The Republicans I Know': Republican State Sen. Joe Benning Reflects On Party Schisms

Senator Joe Benning stands at podium
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR Files
Republican State Sen. Joe Benning of Caledonia County says the actions of Pres. Donald Trump in inciting violence disqualify him from calling himself a Republican.

Lawmakers from both parties are grappling with the aftermath of Wednesday’s events, when a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol building. In Vermont, some prominent Republicans, including Gov. Phil Scott, are also speaking out against Trump for his role in inciting violence.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Republican state Sen. Joe Benning of Caledonia County. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, what’s been going through your mind since yesterday's events?

Sen. Joe Benning: Well, frankly, I've been livid. I drove home from the Statehouse yesterday listening to all the news reports, and I was ashamed that the people who were invading our capitol are calling themselves Republicans.

These are not the Republicans that I know.

They are not, in my eyes, worthy of calling themselves Republicans. And I totally reject any claim by any one of them that they are the real Republican Party. I think the actions of Donald Trump in inciting this tells me that he has no right calling himself a Republican either.

And yet he has been the party's leader for over four years now as the president. What does that say about the state of your party?

The state of my party is actually the Vermont GOP, and I think that the Vermont GOP has been pretty clear in how they feel about what's going on here.

There is certainly a component within the Vermont GOP that are very dedicated Donald Trump followers. There is also a contingent of the Vermont GOP that is not in favor and has never been in favor of Donald Trump.

In the past election, those two sides managed to work together. And at this stage, I can foresee the schism is going to be very open and we're going to have an internal conversation about how we proceed from here. And make no mistake on my part: I will be in favor of not following the Trumpian antics that were displayed yesterday.

"There is certainly a component within the Vermont GOP that are very dedicated Donald Trump followers. There is also a contingent of the Vermont GOP that is not in favor and has never been in favor of Donald Trump in the past election." - Sen. Joe Benning

Well, then, do you intend to remain in the Republican Party?

I have always been in the Republican Party, have never left. I've been accused by some of the more extremist Trump supporters as being a RINO [Republican In Name Only], but that's the kind of attempted insult that just rolls right off my back.

I have been a strong supporter of the party's platform planks. In fact, I've authored a great deal of them and I maintain that position. I believe that I am a moderate Republican and that I have attempted to work within the party and externally, in order to advance the best interests of Vermonters.

But isn't staying in the party and being part of the political apparatus that has supported President Trump for over four years now, which led to these events on Wednesday — Trump incited this group to go to the Capitol — I mean, it feels a little bit like you're trying to have it both ways.

Not at all. I don't believe Donald Trump is worthy of the name Republican.

And yet he's led the Republican Party for over four years.

I don't disagree with you, Henry, that he has been the focal head of the party. He was elected. He has not received one of my votes. But the bottom line is, if you're asking me to make a choice between leaving the constitutional principles that I stand for and withdrawing from the Republican Party label, that is just not going to happen. I believe in those principles. I believe they have a proper place in civil discourse. But what I've been witnessing, I am not in favor of at all. So I am suggesting very strongly to him that he leave the party because these are not the Republican principles that I stand for.

More from VPR: 'The Doors Were Literally Being Battered Down': Rep. Peter Welch Describes U.S. Capitol Insurrection

Some of your fellow Republicans — including Gov. Phil Scott — are calling for Trump to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment. Do you agree with that?

I do.

Do you see that as a legitimate possibility in the next two weeks?

I don't. And that's not because it's literally impossible, it's just the factual circumstances of there being two weeks left to go. So, I'm going to have to hold my breath and wait for the inauguration of our next president.

More from VPR: Priorities 'Every Day He Is In Office Is A Danger': Dartmouth Prof. Calls For Trump's Removal From Office

6,500 people in Caledonia County voted for Pres. Trump last November. You also represent parts of Orange County and presumably people in the towns you represent in that county voted for Pres. Trump as well. So, what do you say to your constituents who may believe that the election was stolen from him and may not accept President-elect Joe Biden as the next president?

I’d say the same thing that I've been telling them since the get-go after the election. By now, over 60 courts, the attorney general of the United States, several-dozen Republican secretaries of state and/or voting monitors have been very clear about there not being widespread voter fraud. [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell agrees with that statement.

I don't know how to convince anyone who is holding on to this belief that there is some kind of other alternative fact pattern that you need to believe, and ignore what the facts on the ground are. That's just blind loyalty to somebody who is tweeting as the original source of all of that conversation.

And it's a very frustrating thing to see. If they're not going to change their minds about that, you know, I can't twist their arms to force them to do so. But I can certainly be frustrated enough to say to them: "You're ignoring the facts on the ground, at what point do you finally understand?"

The problem here isn't the facts on the ground; it’s the problem of the "tweeter in chief." And that is not something I would recommend you follow. If they choose to continue to do that, that's up to them.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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