WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holds Donald Trump’s fate in his hands, but he won’t say whether he will vote to convict the president and possibly provide the momentum needed to forever bar Trump from office.
Without McConnell’s support, it is a virtual certainty that Senate Republicans will vote down the articles of impeachment charging Trump with “incitement of insurrection” after his mob stormed the Capitol in a bid to keep him in power, killing five.
But with McConnell’s support, anything could happen.
“While the press has been full of speculation, I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate,” McConnell said in a statement Wednesday, shortly before the House voted to impeach Trump a historic second time. His office did not respond to further requests for comment.
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McConnell voting to impeach Trump would be a shocking break from his usual tactics. He typically strives to keep his party united and shield his members from tough, divisive votes. He has tolerated and appeased Trump, if not embraced him, over the past four years. McConnell tempered his criticism and stood by Trump through scandals like the president’s kind words about the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, his administration putting immigrant children in cages, the Muslim travel ban, and Trump attempting to pressure a foreign country to help him in the election, which got him impeached the first time.
“If he publicly says he will impeach, then the dam breaks,” said one Democratic Senate aide. “He can basically give cover to [Republicans] who also want to impeach and salvage his own reputation at the same time.”
McConnell’s spokesperson confirmed Wednesday he would not recall the Senate early to take up impeachment. The earliest a trial can start is Jan. 19 and a vote would take place after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in and takes the White House. This removes the chance of Trump being historically removed from office. But McConnell is reported by the New York Times to be pleased about the Democratic move to impeach Trump and mulling a dramatic break with the president.
Across the Capitol, there is widespread speculation about what McConnell will do. Even though he will lose his perch as Senate majority leader when Democrats take over on Jan. 20 — the chamber is tied 50-50, and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris will break ties — McConnell will remain the minority leader and still holds massive sway with his caucus.
But McConnell is also known as someone who thinks about his legacy. Trump is now on his way out of office, and his failed attempt to overturn the election will in large part define his administration. McConnell, a self-styled stickler for norms and traditions even as he’s gleefully shattering them, rallied his conference to reject Trump’s antidemocratic demands. He called his vote to affirm Biden as the winner of the election “the most important vote I have ever cast.”
McConnell is also largely untouchable. He just won reelection to a six-year term and, at age 78, may not run again.
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The House vote to impeach Trump is essentially an indictment. The Senate now has the job of holding a trial to convict or acquit him. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict, meaning at least 17 Republicans would have to support it — assuming all Democrats are in favor. If Trump is convicted, a simple majority vote in the Senate can then bar him from ever holding office in the future.
Several Republican senators have condemned Trump over the attacks and are already seen as possible yes votes on conviction, including Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, Rob Portman, and Pat Toomey. McConnell’s support would be essential for momentum to carry that number into the range of 17.
It’s a tall order. Only 10 Republicans voted to impeach Trump in the House. But intra-party anger with Trump is at an unprecedented high, in large part to how close lawmakers were to the mob who broke into the Capitol. Collins wrote a dramatic firsthand account of her experience during the siege, which included her appeals to Trump falling on deaf ears.
“I called and texted my closest contact at the White House to urge that the president immediately tell the rioters to stop their violence and go home. But President Donald Trump completely undercut that message by repeating his grievances and telling the rioters that he knew how they felt. This was terrible, especially since he incited them in the first place,” she wrote.
Regardless of what McConnell does, the impeachment momentum will face major resistance from some Republicans in the Senate. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has become one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, is already pushing back. He released a statement Wednesday denouncing the impeachment proceedings that included calling out McConnell.
“As to Senate leadership, I fear they are making the problem worse, not better,” said Graham. He said to Republicans who legitimize the impeachment process, “you are doing great damage not only to the country, the future of the presidency, but also the party.”
Last year, after Trump’s first impeachment trial, Romney was the only Republican to vote in favor of convicting Trump. But there are already signs that things are different this time around. The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump make up only about 5% of their party's conference. But it is 10 more Republican votes against Trump than last time.