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Could McConnell's signal to Republicans open floodgates against Trump?

David Catanese, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell’s openness to convicting Donald Trump in a U.S. Senate impeachment trial is a seismic signal to his caucus that could prod other Republicans to break with the president in the coming days and weeks.

While McConnell has remained largely silent since last week’s riot of the U.S. Capitol, those close to him have anonymously conveyed through media reports that the outgoing Majority Leader is ready to wash his hands of Trump and that he sees the impeachment process as a ready-made solvent.

Jim Kessler, a former policy aide to incoming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said McConnell’s signal gives other Senate Republicans permission to abandon Trump.

“Whether they take that permission, I don’t know,” said Kessler. “But between both McConnell and Rep. [Liz} Cheney, this can no longer be seen as a partisan endeavor. That just changes this dramatically.”

The U.S. House was set to vote to impeach Trump for the second time in 13 months on Wednesday, charging the president with “inciting an insurrection” after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the nation’s capitol last week, vandalized the building and sparked a security lockdown that delayed the certification of the 2020 Electoral College vote.

While McConnell strongly decried the rampage and publicly rejected Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, he has reserved his angst about Trump for private conversations with confidantes. But the fact that his feelings leaked to the media in the hours before the House impeachment vote was no coincidence, according to McConnell observers.

“I don’t think that story would have appeared in the press unless it was intentional,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist and aide to former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. “Mitch McConnell knows what happened last week was indefensible. For the Republican Party to have a chance to regain power, they’re going to have to move past this point and time … It’ll be a hard vote for a lot of them.”

Assuming all 50 Democratic senators vote to convict Trump, another 17 Republicans would be necessary to remove him from office. But because the Senate is out of session this week, it is unlikely a trial will even commence before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated next Wednesday.

But whenever the Senate trial is held, some legal experts believe the upper chamber could hold a separate vote designed to prohibit Trump from holding office in the future. It’s an option that McConnell and other Republicans could view as increasingly enviable since it would significantly diminish Trump’s continued hold over the party into the next two federal election cycles and eliminate him as a potential 2024 candidate.

In last year’s impeachment trial, Utah’s Mitt Romney was the lone senator to vote to remove Trump. Now Romney says Trump deserves a “meaningful consequence.” It’s already believed that other GOPers will join him whenever the Senate holds its trial this year.


Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has said she wants Trump “out,” Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey indicated Trump’s offenses are worthy of impeachment and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse told CBS News he would consider voting to convict.

Even if all four of them got to “yes” and are joined by McConnell, a dozen more Republicans would be needed to reach the two-thirds threshold. Some constitutional scholars argue that a simple majority of senators could vote to bar Trump from running again -- but that decision would almost definitely spark a court challenge.

For his part, McConnell is clearly fed up with Trump. A source familiar with McConnell’s thinking said he largely blames Trump for the GOP’s twin Senate losses in Georgia. As the Kentuckian begins to eye climbing back into the majority in the 2022 midterms, an untethered and vengeful Trump would only complicate his calculations.

Still, even out of power Trump stands poised to remain a potent force with his tens of millions of followers. Any Republican senator who bucks Trump risks his wrath, if not an eventual primary challenge from a MAGA loyalist.

“It’s a calculated risk but when it comes to being on the right side of history, I think they’re going to make that choice,” said Reed.

Of course, McConnell’s signal to his GOP colleagues does not guarantee that a significant number will move against the president. At least a half dozen Republican senators harbor some level of presidential aspirations and may decide that a vote to convict Trump would immediately extinguish their chances.

At this point, with the timing of a trial up in the air, they may not even know what side they’ll end up on yet.

“The Republican caucus looks like an army that is in full panic running in different directions,” said Kessler, “so it’s hard to predict what they’ll do in the next 24 hours.”

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