Behind the scenes of McConnell's impeachment drama

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP scrambles to fend off Kobach in Kansas primary Meadows: Election will be held on November third Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency MORE (R-Ky.) had to quell a revolt in the Senate Republican Conference on Friday after he floated a proposal to extend President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE’s trial into a third week.

Most of the GOP conference, especially conservatives, wanted to vote late Friday or very early Saturday morning to acquit Trump, allowing him to deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday without the cloud of impeachment proceedings.

Meanwhile, moderates such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Shaheen, Chabot call for action on new round of PPP loans MORE (R-Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOn The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock Overnight Energy: Official says protesters not cleared from Lafayette Square for Trump | Trump administration blasts banks refusing to fund Arctic drilling | 2019 coal production hit lowest level since 1978 MORE (R-Alaska) wanted a chance to speak on the floor to explain their vote and sought to avoid, if possible, a final up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment in the dead of night.

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McConnell anticipated that Democrats would vote in unison against the Republican organizing resolution to set up the final phase of the trial, culminating with a vote on the articles of impeachment themselves.

If he lost three moderates or three Republicans on either side of his conference, he would suffer the embarrassment of the organizing resolution failing on the floor.

He convened a meeting of what one attendee called a “diverse group” of Republican senators in his Capitol office Friday afternoon in an attempt to settle the internal squabble.

The participants included Collins and Murkowski as well as Republican Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyStimulus checks debate now focuses on size, eligibility CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock MORE (Utah), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag MORE (Tenn.), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection GOP under mounting pressure to strike virus deal quickly MORE (N.C.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election MORE (Texas), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP McConnell: 15-20 GOP senators will not vote for any coronavirus deal CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia MORE (Neb.) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits MORE (S.D.), the majority whip.

One Republican senator who attended the hastily arranged meeting said it was important to end the trial with decorum instead of rush to complete it in the middle of the night.

“You don’t move quickly. You show some respect to the other side, and that’s really what the discussion was about. It’s what that timeline needed to look like. And it couldn’t have been tonight, and it shouldn’t have been tomorrow,” the lawmaker said Friday evening.

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After McConnell kept a firm grip on the impeachment proceedings and his Republican conference throughout the first two weeks of the impeachment trial, things threatened to get out of control on Friday.

GOP senators, forced to sit at their desks quietly through 35 hours of opening arguments and 16 hours of submitting written questions, appeared to have a lot of pent-up energy to release.

McConnell’s plan, which was first reported by The Washington Post on Friday morning and attributed to an administration official and a congressional official, caught Republican senators completely by surprise.

The vast majority of the Senate GOP conference expected to acquit Trump on Friday or early Saturday morning if Democrats forced procedural delays so that Trump would be free of the articles of impeachment and could take a victory lap at Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

“There was kind of an early announcement that this was going to end Wednesday and everyone was like, ‘Really?!’” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the internal debate over how to end the trial.

“I do know it surprised virtually the entire conference when they announced that they were going to Wednesday. We were like, ‘We’re going to do it after the State of the Union address? That doesn’t make any sense,’” the lawmaker added.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoLatest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Barrasso nuclear bill latest GOP effort to boost uranium mining MORE (R-Wyo.) had said only the day before that the goal was to get Trump acquitted by Friday or Saturday morning at the latest if Democrats dragged out the process with procedural objections.

“The goal would be to get this done tomorrow evening. I don’t know if Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerMeadows: 'I'm not optimistic there will be a solution in the very near term' on coronavirus package Biden calls on Trump, Congress to enact an emergency housing program Senators press Postal Service over complaints of slow delivery MORE has opportunities to try to slow down the process, but I don’t think we end up leaving the Senate floor or leaving the chamber until it’s done,” Barrasso told reporters Thursday, referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMeadows: 'I'm not optimistic there will be a solution in the very near term' on coronavirus package Biden calls on Trump, Congress to enact an emergency housing program Senators press Postal Service over complaints of slow delivery MORE (D-N.Y.).

A second GOP senator who requested anonymity said he felt McConnell had “communicated” to the conference that there would be an effort to move to acquittal immediately after a vote for additional witnesses and documents failed — a vote that was required by the organizing resolution 53 Republicans voted for last week.

“That was everyone’s presumption — we didn’t just dream it up,” said the lawmaker, who said there was “frustration” in the conference.

The lawmaker said that Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Brawls on Capitol Hill on Barr and COVID-19 Hillicon Valley: Tech CEOs brace for House grilling | Senate GOP faces backlash over election funds | Twitter limits Trump Jr.'s account MORE (R-Ark.), a firebrand conservative and staunch Trump ally, was one of the most outspoken in voicing his frustration over what he saw as a lack of clarity from McConnell about the plan for ending the trial.

A source close to Cotton said, “I wouldn’t characterize it as frustration directed at leadership. But more a frustration that the trial would extend. He’s over it, though! On to Wednesday.”

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Other GOP senators wanted to know why the trial had to be postponed until next week.

McConnell told at least one of his colleagues that the White House wanted it pushed to Wednesday, according to a Senate GOP aide familiar with the conversation.

But when that GOP lawmaker asked Trump’s legal defense team on the floor whether it wanted to extend the trial into next week to make closing arguments, the lawyers said they wanted to end it and acquit the president as soon as possible, the source said.

Instead, Republican senators opted to skip a procedural fight that would have dragged on with Democrats into the early hours of Saturday morning, allowing Schumer the victory of Trump delivering his State of the Union address without the impeachment proceedings being over.

The plan had the added benefit of giving GOP moderates a chance to explain their votes on the floor and avoid the bad optics of voting in the middle of the night to acquit Trump, something that surely would have given Democrats more rhetorical ammo.

Under the agreement McConnell and Schumer struck on Friday, the Senate held four additional votes on witnesses and documents that evening, set up time for the House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team to present closing arguments on Monday and scheduled time over three days for senators to speak on the floor.

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Passing the resolution required Republicans to vote on a Schumer amendment to subpoena former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence Senate-passed defense spending bill includes clause giving DHS cyber agency subpoena power Bolton defends Cheney amid clash with House conservatives MORE, acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyFauci says positive White House task force reports don't always match what he hears on the ground Bottom line White House, Senate GOP clash over testing funds MORE, senior White House adviser Robert Blair, and Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffe, as well as several sets of documents.

Schumer also secured two separate votes on subpoenaing just Bolton, who shook up the trial again on Friday when The New York Times reported his claim in an unpublished manuscript that Trump asked him in early May to help set up a meeting between then Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky and Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiNunes declines to answer if he received information from Ukraine lawmaker meant to damage Biden Democratic attorneys criticize House Judiciary Democrats' questioning of Barr Swalwell: Barr has taken Michael Cohen's job as Trump's fixer MORE, Trump’s personal lawyer, who was pushing for an investigation of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency Abrams: Trump 'doing his best to undermine our confidence' in voting system MORE.

Some Republican senators thought the votes — which could come back to haunt lawmakers in tough races this year, such as Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP GOP fears Trump attacks on mail-in vote will sabotage turnout Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection MORE (R-Colo.) and Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits MORE (R-Ariz.) — were a key concession. They believed they could have been avoided after the chamber earlier in the day defeated a motion to debate and consider additional subpoenas.

A Wednesday vote also accommodated Murkowski’s desire not to have the impeachment vote and the State of the Union on the same day. She indicated it would be inappropriate to have such a divisive vote shortly before Trump’s address to Congress and the nation, which is supposed to be a unifying event.

A spokeswoman for Collins on Saturday said her boss did not have a strong preference as to when the final vote on the articles of impeachment would be held but wanted to make sure she and other senators had a chance to explain their positions on the floor.

“There was multi-party disagreement about how the Senate should proceed. It was not held up by the moderates. As part of that discussion, Senator Collins believed that before Senators cast their final votes they should have the opportunity to stand up and briefly state their reasons for voting to acquit or convict. She did not care what day that occurred or how much time the members got,” said Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins.