McConnell displays mastery of Senate with impeachment victory

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Push for national popular vote movement gets boost from conservatives To avoid November catastrophe, Democrats have to KO Sanders MORE (R-Ky.) scored a major victory for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE and his own reelection bid this week when the Senate rejected two articles of impeachment after a trial that lasted only two weeks.

McConnell’s deft handling of both the Senate rules and GOP moderates quickly freed Trump from the cloud of impeachment, despite a steady stream of new evidence and allegations about the extent of the president’s involvement in an effort to initiate a politically motivated investigation into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket MORE.

From the start, McConnell’s goal was to keep the impeachment trial as short as possible and have a final up-or-down vote to acquit the president instead of a procedural vote early on to dismiss the articles, an approach favored by some Republicans. 

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Trump appeared ecstatic with McConnell’s performance during a Thursday “celebration” in the East Room of the White House. 

“Mitch McConnell, I want to tell you, you did a fantastic job,” Trump said, singling out the GOP leader for praise to loud, standing applause from other Republicans in the room. 

Trump joked about McConnell’s reputation for keeping his public statements short and to the point, then marveled at his long tenure in power. 

The president touted McConnell as “a great guy” and then joked “he’s a tough guy to read,” as the Kentucky Republican laughed in the first row of the audience.

“That’s what makes him good,” Trump added. “He understood right from [the start] this was crooked politics.”

In the end, Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOrange County declaring local health emergency in response to coronavirus Why Bernie Sanders won the debate Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response MORE (Utah) was the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump, on the first article of impeachment alleging abuse of power. McConnell later admitted he didn’t see that coming, telling reporters he was “surprised” and “disappointed.”

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But that vote did not sour Trump’s victory lap on Thursday, as many Republicans waved off Romney’s decision, accusing him of being motivated by a personal dislike of the president.

McConnell’s ability to keep the trial on track, combined with Trump’s lavish praise after winning acquittal, gives him a big boost heading into his reelection campaign for a seventh Senate term. 

“I think Donald Trump is more popular in Kentucky today than he was when he got elected in the first place, and he was pretty damn popular then. And I think McConnell is rightly viewed as the prime minister of his administration,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell political adviser.

McConnell won Kentucky with a little more than 62 percent of the vote in 2016. A recent Morning Consult poll of state voters showed Trump had a net approval rating of 14 percent in Kentucky last month.

Jennings said McConnell helped Trump beat former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDNC warns campaigns about cybersecurity after attempted scam Biden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Stone judge under pressure over calls for new trial MORE in 2016 by keeping the seat of late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia vacant for months, making the presidential election in part a referendum on the Supreme Court.

“He’s kept Trump in the White House through this impeachment, and then he has delivered on all the president’s policy promises,” Jennings said. “There are no two politicians working better together than Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, and if you happen to represent a state like Kentucky, that’s a hell of a thing.” 

At Thursday’s White House event, Trump also highlighted McConnell’s role in getting 191 of his judicial picks confirmed by the Senate.

McConnell played up his collaboration with Trump at the start of the trial, telling Fox News host Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityFox News prime-time lineup delivers highest ratings in 24-year history O'Reilly weighs in on Warren-Bloomberg exchange on nondisclosure agreements The Hill's review of John Solomon's columns on Ukraine MORE in a December interview that he would be “in total coordination” with the White House on strategy. 

When Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntCongress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium MORE (R-Mo.), one of McConnell’s deputies, said early last month the trial could finish by the State of the Union address, it seemed improbable. But the trial concluded less than 24 hours after Trump’s Tuesday night speech.

One senior Republican predicted it would go “a lot longer,” while another, Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrCongress eyes killing controversial surveillance program John Ratcliffe back under consideration by Trump for top intel job The Hill's Morning Report - Can Sanders be stopped? MORE (R-N.C.), said the trial could last six to eight weeks. 

President Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999 lasted five weeks.

In the end, McConnell was able to defeat the articles of impeachment just two weeks after the House managers presented their first day of opening arguments. 

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Blunt, who is the Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman, hailed it in an interview as a defining moment of McConnell’s leadership.

McConnell's stroke of genius, Blunt said, was to seize upon the organizing resolution that the Senate passed 100 to 0 before Clinton’s impeachment trial to unify the GOP conference before the trial even started. 

Although Democrats argued that the circumstances of Clinton’s trial, which was preceded by an in-depth investigation by independent counsel Ken Starr, differed significantly from Trump’s, which was preceded by a relatively short House investigation, McConnell convinced his GOP colleagues to adopt a nearly identical organizing resolution.

Republicans who were alarmed by Trump’s conduct were able to fend off persistent questioning from the media by asserting they were strictly sticking to precedent. 

“Certainly, holding our members together to move forward on a set of rules we could all agree with was a significant moment. I think it set the stage for what was going to happen after that,” Blunt said. 

Agreeing to an organizing resolution that postponed a vote on whether to subpoena additional witnesses and documents until after 35 hours of opening arguments and 16 hours of senators asking questions made it much more difficult for wavering GOP moderates to later break off from the rest of the conference. 

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McConnell was able to easily convince fellow Republicans they didn’t need to hear from more witnesses, Blunt noted.

After Republicans senators sat for more than 50 hours at their desks, not allowed to look at their cellphones or chat above a whisper with neighbors, they were itchy to wrap up the trial. 

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Bill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn The Trump administration's harmful and immoral attack on children MORE (R-Tenn.), a key swing vote on whether to subpoena new witnesses, said the House prosecutors had already presented “a mountain of evidence.”

Another Republican senator, who requested anonymity to comment on McConnell’s tactics, said the GOP leader set the trial’s course by corralling his colleagues early.

“I think it was masterful from the beginning because he got everybody into the same funnel, and that’s hard to do in our conference. He said, ‘We’re going to move forward with the Clinton-type organizing resolution and then we’re going to move on to the debate on witnesses.’ That had everybody moving in the same direction,” the senator said.

Even Democrats like Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Graham warned Pentagon chief about consequences of Africa policy: report Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump MORE (Del.) expressed amazement that McConnell was able to keep his colleagues marching in lockstep.

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McConnell showed some flexibility by responding quickly to colleagues such as Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders takes incoming during intense SC debate Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Democrats block two Senate abortion bills MORE (R-Maine) and Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way GOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law MORE (R-Ohio), who raised concerns over the initial draft of the organizing resolution giving the House impeachment managers only two days to present 24 hours worth of arguments, which would have led to late-night sessions.

After McConnell expanded the time frame for opening arguments from two to three days, moderate Republicans who had been under heavy political pressure were able to point to a concession.

Democrats were left grumbling that it was a largely meaningless gesture that only distracted from the more important issue of subpoenaing additional witnesses and documents. 

Another effective tactical decision McConnell made was to play up partisanship at the start of the trial.

He declared at a December press conference that he's "not impartial about this at all” and then rebuffed Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Democratic mega-donor reaching out to Pelosi, Schumer in bid to stop Sanders: report Trump administration freezes funding for study of hurricane barriers: report MORE’s (N.Y.) attempts to negotiate the rules of the trial before Congress left town for the holidays. 

The approach prompted Democrats to respond in kind, which had the effect of further dividing senators along partisan lines.

When Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders takes incoming during intense SC debate Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Overnight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MORE (R-Alaska) announced she would not vote for a crucial motion to subpoena additional witnesses and documents, she said it had “become clear that some of my colleagues intend to further politicize this process.” 

When Murkowski later voted to acquit Trump, she said, “The Senate should be ashamed by the rank partisanship that has been on display.” 

By taking steps to ensure the trial would be a partisan fight, McConnell was able to unify almost his entire conference behind an us-versus-them mentality.

Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Stocks close with second day of steep losses | Dow falls over 800 points as coronavirus fears grow | Kudlow claims virus has been contained | US expects China to honor trade deal amid outbreak Hillicon Valley: Agencies play catch-up over TikTok security concerns | Senate Dems seek sanctions on Russia over new election meddling | Pentagon unveils AI principles Senate Democrats urge Trump administration to impose sanctions on Russia for election interference MORE (D-Ohio) asserted at the end of the trial that “the majority leader of the Senate wanted it to be partisan.” 

“He wanted it to look like this, he wanted it to be as quickly as possible” so that the entire impeachment process would be dismissed as partisan, Brown said. 

The plan almost worked perfectly, until Romney surprised his colleagues by accusing the president shortly before the final vote of an “appalling abuse of public trust” and a “flagrant assault on our electoral rights.” 

Romney then became the first senator in history to vote for removing a president from his own party, giving Democrats grounds to argue that the impeachment effort was bipartisan, if only by a thread.