How McConnell derailed Trump's impeachment trial before it started

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal On The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns MORE (Ky.) on Jan. 13 announced to colleagues that he was open to voting to convict President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic MORE for inciting an insurrection, but since then he has taken steps behind the scenes to throttle the Democratic impeachment effort.

On Tuesday, 45 GOP senators voted in support of a motion from Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFive things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries Up next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators MORE (R-Ky.) declaring Trump’s second impeachment trial unconstitutional on the grounds that Trump is no longer president.

The vote made it clear that there will be no Senate conviction of Trump, since at least 17 GOP votes would be needed to secure the 67 votes necessary in a 50-50 Senate.

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“Just do the math,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Schumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget MORE (Maine), one of five Republicans to oppose Paul’s motion, remarked to reporters after the vote.

McConnell was described by associates as “furious” over the mob attack on the Capitol, and he has continued to say he will keep an open mind to legal arguments presented during the trial.

It seems clear he is more than open to the party moving on from Trump, particularly after the former president was widely blamed for the GOP losing two runoff elections in Georgia that cost it the Senate majority.

At the same time, McConnell likely wanted to avoid an intense fight within the caucus over a Trump conviction. And he’d seen the blowback in the House, where Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn Cheney58 percent say Jan. 6 House committee is biased: poll Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Kinzinger supports Jan. 6 panel subpoenas for Republicans, including McCarthy MORE (Wyo.) and other Republicans who voted to impeach Trump have come under furious criticism from the former president's supporters.

Over the last several weeks, McConnell made a series of moves in the lead-up to the vote on Paul’s motion that GOP senators said made it highly likely that the motion would succeed.

And the effect of those moves and Paul’s motion were to quash the Senate trial before it even begins.

“How the pieces fell together, I don’t know, but they did fall together and Mitch is pretty shrewd,” one GOP senator who spoke to The Hill said.

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McConnell’s leadership team informed Senate Republicans on a Jan. 21 conference call that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would not preside over the trial.

Roberts did preside over Trump’s first trial a year ago. His replacement is Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge House clears .1 billion Capitol security bill, sending to Biden Senate passes .1 billion Capitol security bill MORE (D-Vt.), the Senate president pro tempore and senior Democratic senator.  

That revelation “crystalized” for Paul the idea of challenging the constitutionality of the whole proceeding given that a Democratic senator would be presiding.

The timing of the Paul vote was also curious.

The Senate voted on Paul’s motion immediately after GOP senators heard a presentation from George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, an outspoken critic of the Democratic impeachment effort against a former president.

A second GOP senator who requested anonymity said the surprise vote immediately following the presentation at lunch boxed in many GOP senators.

“That was kind of sandbagging us,” the lawmaker said.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Sarah Palin says she's praying about running for Senate against Murkowski Graham says he has COVID-19 'breakthrough' infection MORE (Alaska), another one of the five GOP senators who voted against Paul’s motion, said she thought it was unfortunate that the Senate was forced to vote immediately after Turley’s presentation and before they could hear different views.

“For a significant institutional question like this, to have this sprung upon us caused everybody to be a little bit flat-footed,” she said.

“So we heard one side,” she added. “I think just about everybody was quite surprised to be in a position to actually take not only a public position but a vote on this today.

McConnell also took steps to delay the opening of the trial.

He declined Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPoll: Majority of voters say more police are needed amid rise in crime America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE’s (N.Y.) demands to reconvene the Senate from the January recess in time to start the impeachment trial while Trump was still in office.

The pre-trial briefing schedule that Schumer and McConnell later agreed to would have eaten up the week before the inauguration and McConnell argued there was no realistic way to finish the trial while Trump was still in office.

“There is simply no chance that a fair or serious trial could conclude before President-elect Biden is sworn in next week,” McConnell said on Jan. 13.

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At the time, it wasn’t clear what would happen because of the delay, but it seems to have let anger over the Jan. 6 riot simmer down within the caucus.

“That’s McConnell’s game. He knows the longer something waits, the more it fizzles,” said a Senate GOP aide. “McConnell knows that if you wait on something, the sizzle goes out.”

McConnell bought more time for his colleagues by pushing for the House impeachment managers to wait until Thursday to present their article of impeachment to the Senate, which would have given Trump's defense team until Feb. 11 to submit a pre-trial brief.

He insisted that the president, as unpopular as he was immediately after the Capitol attack, would get due process and a fair trial, even if it prolonged the process longer than Democrats and even many Republicans wanted.

McConnell and Schumer eventually agreed that the House impeachment managers would exhibit the articles of impeachment on Jan. 25 and that the president’s pre-trial brief wouldn’t be due until Feb. 8, setting Feb. 9 as the start date of the trial.

There were reasons for Schumer to agree to a delay.

He had to balance the concerns of Democrats such as Sens. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch MORE (D-Conn.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineThis week: Senate starts infrastructure sprint Overnight Defense: Watchdog blasts government's handling of Afghanistan conflict | Biden asks Pentagon to look into mandatory vaccines | Congress passes new Capitol security bill GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate MORE (D-Va.), who didn’t want an immediate start to the impeachment trial to get in the way of President Biden’s Cabinet picks and work on a COVID-19 relief bill.

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McConnell didn’t urge his colleagues to vote one way or another on the Paul motion, and he has not been advocating for or against a conviction.

But a third Republican senator, who requested anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes maneuvers, said the way the debate played out in the GOP conference was the result of McConnell’s handiwork.

The senator said he viewed McConnell’s statement on Jan. 13 that he had not decided how he would vote on an article of impeachment as more of a warning to Trump not to do anything dumb, such as pardoning the rioters who stormed the Capitol.

“Even going back to the beginning when McConnell was sending the message that he was open to voting to convict, I think that may have been designed to help save the country and keep Trump from doing things that are even more damaging,” the senator said.

Other GOP senators said they thought McConnell was “holding the door open” for voting for a conviction if additional “damning” information emerged about Trump’s role in stirring up the crowd that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

It’s unclear to what degree McConnell was just responding to shifting political winds.

But GOP senators say it’s rare the longtime senator’s hand isn’t at play in steering the GOP caucus.

“There’s not a lot that happens that catches Mitch by surprise,” the second GOP senator requesting anonymity said. 

This story was updated at 10:59 a.m.