Inside McConnell and Murkowski’s battle over Trump’s impeachment
Tensions flared between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and swing Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) during then-President Trump’s first impeachment trial in the Winter of 2020, according to an exclusively obtained excerpt from a new book.
New revelations about what McConnell did behind the scenes to help Trump during his first impeachment trial shows the minority leader was one of Trump’s most effective Senate allies before their dramatic falling out after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
They also show that while McConnell is now supporting Murkowski’s re-election bid against a Trump-backed challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, just two years ago the two senators were at loggerheads over how to respond to questions about Trump’s conduct and fitness for office.
The forthcoming book, “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump,” reveals that McConnell leaned hard on Murkowski to vote against calling more witnesses at Trump’s impeachment trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Murkowski at the time said publicly she “was disturbed” by McConnell’s pledge to work in “total coordination” with Trump’s legal team and “take my cues from the president’s lawyers.”
Murkowski saw senators more as members of an impartial jury, not an extension of the defense team, and told a reporter in Alaska shortly before Christmas 2019 that McConnell had “further confused the process.”
Murkowski’s criticism of McConnell started trending on Twitter. When she woke up the next morning after a late night of wrapping Christmas presents at her cabin outside of Anchorage, she found a “snarky” message from McConnell in her email inbox.
It was “a missive that would zap all the holiday cheer out of her for two days. The leader was not happy with her comments. And he wanted to talk to her,” longtime Washington reporters Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian write in “Unchecked,” which will go on sale Oct. 18.
McConnell later tried to mend fences with Murkowski, whom he knew would be a key Republican vote. If she defected, the charges against Trump would have posed a huge political liability for the president and his party heading into the 2020 election.
After returning to Washington after the recess, McConnell summoned Murkowski to walk over to him on the Senate floor and told her: “You and I are on the same page.”
He signaled he didn’t have lingering hard feelings by recalling how in the same interview in which Murkowski criticized him, she also criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for rushing the impeachment investigation.
And he tried to defend his statement that he would coordinate closely with the White House legal team by arguing that Democrats had done the same thing during Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial.
But it still was a sore subject for Murkowski.
“Well don’t advertise it!” she had snapped back.
Bade, the co-author of Politico Playbook, and Demirjian, a member of The Washington Post’s national security team, write that Murkowski also struggled with herself over how to handle the trial, and how to vote on the crucial question of allowing House Democratic prosecutors to call additional witnesses, which would have extended the trial for weeks or even months.
McConnell worked behind the scenes to persuade her not to defect and vote with Democrats.
He knew he couldn’t bully her so he had to use the tactic he had deployed so effectively over his years as leader to convince wayward Republican colleagues to toe the party line.
“McConnell never threatened. He never bullied. And though he often left her space to follow her own intuition, he was an expert at laying the guilt on thick and backing her into a corner,” the authors write.
Murkowski was a critical player in the 2020 impeachment trial because she turned out to be the deciding swing vote on the question of calling more witnesses.
Unlike the vote on convicting the president and removing him from office, which requires two-thirds of the Senate — which was never a real possibility in January of 2020 — the procedural vote on calling more witnesses only needed a simple majority.
Republicans controlled 53 seats, but moderate Sens. Susan Collins (R), who was up for re-election in Maine, a Democratic-leaning state, and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), an outspoken Trump critic, were expected to vote for additional witnesses. If Murkowski joined them, there would be a 50-50 tie on the question and it would have fallen to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to decide or punt on the crucial question.
McConnell knew that Murkowski respected Roberts, who was presiding over the Senate trial, and exploited that to his full advantage. He warned that if she voted with Democrats to call witnesses, Roberts would be thrown into a political maelstrom along with other judges who would be forced to rule on Trump’s legal appeals.
“The most consequential vote during this impeachment is not about whether to convict or acquit,” McConnell told Murkowski carefully, according to the book. “It’s about how to vote on witnesses—and what position that will put the courts in.”
He told Murkowski that it would be up to her to protect the integrity of the judicial branch and stop what he viewed as a politically motivated impeachment trial from damaging the federal judiciary’s reputation as standing above politics.
“If you don’t want to do this for the presidency, if you don’t want to do it for the Senate, if you don’t want to do this for 2020 colleagues, do it to save the courts,” he said.
This and other anecdotes in “Unchecked” are gathered from interviews the authors conducted with the key players in Trump’s impeachment trial. The sources were granted anonymity to protect them from political and personal recriminations.
Though Murkowski was torn over the question of witnesses, she felt sure that Trump had acted improperly by using his power as president to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on then-former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter on a July phone call.
Yet the Alaska senator thought House Democrats had rushed the impeachment investigation and had dumped an incomplete case in senators’ laps, asking them to finish their work by taking on the burden of fact finding.
Murkowski wondered why the House had not handled the case with more care and concern. She thought that Democrats were just as guilty of playing politics as her Senate Republican colleagues who reflexively circled around Trump to defend him, even though his conduct raised serious ethical and legal questions.
“Republican leaders, much to her frustration, were constantly telling their rank and file: ‘You gotta circle. You gotta circle together and protect one another here’ — which meant, of course, circling to protect Trump. Just like musk ox, Murkowski thought,” imagining the hulking creatures, who circle around their young with their horns turned out and their rears tucked in during times of danger, according to “Unchecked.”
She ultimately decided the House impeachment investigation and Senate trial were flawed, but she felt there wasn’t anything she could do to rectify the situation or alter the outcome that Trump would be acquitted on the final vote.
She and then-Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the other Republican swing vote, ultimately decided they would not support calling new witnesses, putting the trial on the path for a speedy conclusion and giving McConnell the political win he wanted.
As Murkowski deliberated over what to do, she concluded: “Republicans were too afraid to actually check this president, and Democrats didn’t really care about putting him away—just about getting impeachment over with and using it to do maximum damage to the GOP in the 2020 election.”
“Because of that, she thought sourly, Trump would get away with everything. And she had no choice but to be complicit,” the authors write.