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McConnell keeps GOP guessing on Trump impeachment

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain MORE (R-Ky.) is keeping colleagues guessing on his endgame for the upcoming impeachment trial as Republicans weigh whether to convict President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE over the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The looming trial — the exact start of which remains unknown — is the biggest test to date of Trump’s relationship with Senate Republicans, threatening to not only splinter the caucus but also provide potential primary fodder for future election cycles.

McConnell recently sent a letter to GOP senators that left the door open to convicting Trump after the House last week passed one article of impeachment accusing the president of "willfully inciting violence against the Government of the United States." Beyond that, Senate Republicans say they’ve received few signs from McConnell about where he’ll ultimately come down on the issue.

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“The way he views it ... everybody needs, like we do on impeachment and big issues, to vote their conscience but that he was going to listen to the debate and the evidence,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph Thune'The era of bipartisanship is over': Senate hits rough patch Bipartisan talks sow division among Democrats Senate passes long-delayed China bill MORE (R-S.D.) told The Hill.

He added that that while he’s spoken with McConnell, last week’s letter is “the communication that most of our members have seen.”

Asked if he had gotten clarity from the GOP leader on whether Trump’s actions rise to the level of impeachment, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal McConnell: 'Good chance' for infrastructure deal after talks unravel MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, pointed to the recent letter where the Kentucky Republican described himself as being in a wait-and-see mode.

“What I heard him say is he’s going to ... listen to the evidence presented,” said Cornyn.

A third member of GOP leadership said on Tuesday that they hadn’t heard from McConnell about the looming impeachment trial beyond his letter circulated to the caucus.

Spokespeople for McConnell didn’t respond to a request for comment about any behind-the-scenes conversations about his impeachment strategy.

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The swirling speculation about where McConnell could land on conviction comes as he has remained on the sidelines while Democrats have charged ahead with impeaching Trump a second time, a first in U.S. history.

McConnell and Trump have fundamentally different personalities, with the GOP leader cautious and calculated and the president brash, freewheeling and easily driven off message. But McConnell’s silence on conviction is a reversal from the 2020 impeachment trial, when he pledged early on that Trump would be acquitted and Republicans were hopeful for a bipartisan acquittal.

McConnell has also been one of Trump’s most constant defenders, including declining to weigh in or criticize the president in some of his most controversial moments over the past four years.

His silence heading into the post-Trump era, when McConnell is being relegated back to minority leader in the Senate, hasn’t gone unnoticed in his caucus.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiWhite House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden mission abroad: reward friends, constrain adversaries MORE (R-Alaska) told KTUU, an Alaska TV station, that the GOP leader has been “somewhat obtuse about his intentions.”

McConnell has privately told confidants that while he believes Trump committed impeachable offenses, he hasn’t made a decision on how he will vote.

But he’s stepping up his political criticism of Trump, who falsely claimed for months that the election was “rigged” and urged his supporters to march to the Capitol.

McConnell, in his first comments after the Senate returned to Washington on Tuesday, publicly criticized the president’s role in the attack that left five people dead.

“The last time the Senate convened, we had just reclaimed the Capitol from violent criminals who tried to stop Congress from doing our duty. The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. 

Democrats, who believe McConnell has been deeply impacted by the riots, are keeping a close eye on his public maneuvering.

“I think he takes it very seriously. He has given his life to the United States Senate. ... I know he took it very personally. I think his making this a matter of conscience for each and every senator on his side of the aisle liberates many of them to vote, I hope, for impeachment,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Overnight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Senate bill would add visas, remove hurdles to program for Afghans who helped US MORE (D-Ill.), who was moved to a secure location with McConnell and other members of leadership on Jan. 6 amid the melee.

McConnell is poised to become the most powerful Republican in Washington as Trump leaves office on Wednesday. A vote by the GOP leader to convict Trump could provide political cover to other members of his caucus frustrated with the president’s rhetoric but fearful of potential political blowback.

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“I do think that that would make a big difference. I think it would make a significant difference,” Murkowski said about McConnell potentially voting for conviction.

But it’s unclear if McConnell could, or would try, to lock in the 16 additional Republican votes needed to convict Trump, assuming every Democratic senator votes to find the president guilty.

Republicans are deeply divided about the impeachment trial. Though several GOP senators have signaled that they are open to convicting Trump — a stark contrast to the 2020 trial, when only GOP Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt Romney Eugene Goodman to throw out first pitch at Nationals game White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain On The Money: Consumer prices jumped 5 percent annually in May | GOP senators say bipartisan group has infrastructure deal MORE (Utah) voted to convict the president — several have also come out against impeachment and questioned whether the Senate can even hold a trial after a president leaves office.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump dismisses climate change, calls on Biden to fire joint chiefs Putin says Nord Stream 2 pipeline nearing completion Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Army secretary after snafu | Afghanistan withdrawal 'slightly' ahead of schedule MORE (R-N.D.) told CNBC that it was “unlikely” that there would be 67 votes to convict in the Senate.

"Mitch McConnell has a lot of influence,” he added. “I don't know many wimps in the United States Senate who are going to vote one way or another just because Mitch McConnell does.” 

Doug Heye, a longtime GOP strategist and former leadership aide, predicted that McConnell would have "more sway than anyone" but that it was unclear how far he would push.

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"McConnell will have a sway on the overall atmosphere. It’s not clear what that means when it comes to individual votes. ... He may not try and work individual votes," Heye said. "Typically, when the phrase 'vote of conscience' comes up, it does two things. One, it confers the 'Here’s what I think you ought to seriously consider doing, but also I can’t have a real impact on you.'"

Members of his leadership team don’t expect him to try to twist arms when it comes to voting on whether to convict Trump.

“This is one of those cases where, I mean, I don’t expect that we would whip the vote,” said Thune, McConnell’s No. 2, while predicting that there would be a lot of conversations to figure out where the caucus stands.

Cornyn added that he expected that the vote on whether to convict or acquit would be a decision for individual senators.

“I’ve heard people talk about a vote of conscience, and I think that’s a good way to put it,” he said.