McConnell displays mastery of Senate with impeachment victory

Bonnie Cash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scored a major victory for President Trump 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 Biden.

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. 

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 Romney (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.”

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 Clinton 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 Hannity in a December interview that he would be “in total coordination” with the White House on strategy. 

When Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (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 Burr (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. 

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. 

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 Alexander (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 Coons (Del.) expressed amazement that McConnell was able to keep his colleagues marching in lockstep.

McConnell showed some flexibility by responding quickly to colleagues such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Rob Portman (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 Schumer’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 Murkowski (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 Brown (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.

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Coons Christopher Coons Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Impeachment Joe Biden Lamar Alexander Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Richard Burr Rob Portman Roy Blunt Sean Hannity Senate Sherrod Brown Susan Collins
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