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What will Mitch McConnell do?

Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) calls out the three GOP senators who met with former President Donald Trump's impeachment defense team as being inappropriate.

Posted: Feb 13, 2021 8:01 AM
Updated: Feb 13, 2021 8:01 AM

The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump has been a riveting and disturbing drama — even as we know it will almost certainly end with an acquittal.

Impeachment, after all, is a political process. The Senate majority establishes the rules of the trial, which can determine whether witnesses are called or what evidence is introduced. Oaths to impartiality notwithstanding, senators have throughout history almost always voted along party lines.

As Daniel Goldman, the former lead counsel for House Democrats in the first Trump impeachment trial, told me this week on The Axe Files podcast, "It is a misnomer to call it a trial. It bears so little resemblance to what actually happens in a courtroom."

That was underscored on Thursday evening when three Republican "jurors" met with Trump's legal team after the House managers wrapped up their arguments.

What has been so remarkable throughout this impeachment is not the many Republican politicians who have done the expected. It's the few who have not.

It took courage for the 10 House Republicans to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection — and none more than Rep. Liz Cheney, who put her House leadership position and political future in doubt by rebuking a former president who remains popular in her state and her party.

It seems likely that a handful of Senate Republicans will show similar courage, although that number is expected to be far fewer than what is needed to convict Trump.

The last, intriguing question that is bouncing around the marbled walls of the Capitol is, "What will Mitch do?"

Throughout his long career, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has earned a reputation as a cunning and relentless partisan warrior. Power — whether it's wielding it or maintaining it — has been the Kentuckian's almost singular focus.

His audacious, year-long legislative blockade in 2016, which deprived former President Barack Obama of his Constitutional right to fill a critical Supreme Court vacancy, made him a hero to the right and a hated figure among many Democrats. For four years, he carried Trump's water, despite their obvious differences.

Now in the twilight of his career, McConnell, 78, is faced with a fateful decision.

The laconic leader, who chooses his words with surgical precision, has made it clear that he holds Trump at least partly responsible for the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th.

"The mob was fed lies," he told the Senate on January 19. "They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government, which they did not like."

McConnell has defended Cheney for her vote of conscience, calling her a "leader with deep convictions and the courage to act on them." His wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, resigned from Trump's Cabinet, writing in an email to staff members that she was "deeply troubled" by the "entirely avoidable event."

Beyond principle, McConnell knows that his party's path back to a majority lies in retaining and gaining seats in swing states, not ruby red enclaves where Trump remains popular. McConnell knows that giving Trump a pass will be a burden for Republicans in those decisive races.

Yet McConnell, who has led Senate Republicans since 2007, has made keeping his caucus together a hallmark of his leadership. McConnell knows that if he steps out by joining a small number of Republicans in voting to convict Trump, he will be courting backlash from his own ranks.

It is a decision that mirrors the dilemma facing all Republicans — the vote to convict or acquit is a choice between their responsibilities to the Constitution and our democracy and the demands of a political base still in thrall to Trump.

McConnell's track record suggests he will side with his caucus.

But perhaps the ultimate party man will decide that he must steer his party away from a destructive path. And maybe — just maybe — this man of the Senate, in the final stanzas of his career, will feel the tug of history and conscience and surprise us all.

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