‘Ice in his veins’: McConnell steers GOP through Trump's Ukraine scandal

By Burgess Everett
‘Ice in his veins’: McConnell steers GOP through Trump's Ukraine scandal

In the face of an earthshaking political storm, Mitch McConnell seems unmoved.

The Senate majority leader has kept a sphinxlike pose during all manner of President Donald Trump controversies. But with an impeachment cloud settling over Washington, McConnell is revealing even less than usual.

The GOP leader is saying very little to his members about either his mood or his own view of a political threat that could imperil not just Trump but his Senate majority, according to interviews with nearly a dozen senators.

But on Wednesday evening McConnell dismissed criticism of the readout of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president and said it is “laughable to think this is anywhere close to an impeachable offense.”

“I’ve read the summary of the call. If this is the ‘launching point’ for House Democrats’ impeachment process, they’ve already overplayed their hand. It’s clear there is no quid pro quo that the Democrats were desperately praying for,” McConnell said in a statement for this story.

Those comments come on the heels of McConnell allowing a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution to pass on Tuesday that directed the Trump administration to share a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders with congressional intelligence committees.

McConnell confidants said allowing the resolution through was harmless while blocking it could have attracted unwanted attention; the whistleblower complaint arrived on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Reading the tea leaves, Democrats say the move was evidence McConnell is feeling the heat on the president’s conduct. But Republicans aren’t so sure.

“He’s got ice in his veins. I’ve never seen anybody like it,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who’s only served along McConnell in the Senate for nine months. “He’s seen it all, so he doesn’t panic.”

Trump and McConnell have developed a real partnership over the past two years that has proven durable despite Trump occasionally dinging McConnell for not repealing Obamacare or eliminating the filibuster. McConnell and Trump speak with some frequency about legislation, nominations and Senate races, and Trump often counts McConnell as a close political adviser.

It’s not clear whether McConnell and Trump have discussed the Ukraine controversy, but McConnell has put at least some daylight between them on the issue. On the Senate floor this week, the Kentucky Republican said he personally urged the Defense secretary and the secretary of State to release military aid to Ukraine, which had been reportedly withheld at Trump’s behest.

But what does McConnell think about the very real possibility that his chamber will have to hold an impeachment trial in the coming months? Long-serving senators say they’ve given up trying to divine his next move.

“If he’s concerned about it, nobody should ever know,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) “And if he’s not concerned about it, you’re not going to know.”

Plus, McConnell knows whatever he tells his members at party meetings may go public, so he’s keeping even many in his own party on their toes.

That leaves everyone guessing about what McConnell will do next as he surveys his own reelection campaign, a defense of his Senate majority and a coming clash with House Democrats who appear increasingly likely to impeach the president.

“He’s never rattled,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of McConnell’s closest friends in the Senate for more than a decade. “I don’t expect Sen. McConnell to be rattled. I don’t think he is.”

McConnell’s decision to allow the whistleblower resolution through “is a pretty good signal that there is concern among Republicans,” argued Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Most of us [were] expecting him to oppose it. As he has done every effort to seek transparency.”

On Wednesday morning, McConnell declined to answer a question about whether the Senate will hold an impeachment trial, a gray area in the Senate’s impeachment rules. Most Republicans think the Senate would respond in some way if the House impeaches the president rather than try to ignore it.

But there’s been no real discussion about that among Senate Republicans with McConnell. In fact, other than guidance from Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) there’s been little real discussion among Senate Republicans about the slog that’s before them.

McConnell doesn’t want to get out in front of a rapidly changing storyline. In just the past week, the whistleblower story fully emerged, Trump confirmed reports that he mentioned former Vice President Joe Biden in his discussions with President Volodymyr Zelensky and then released a White House summary of that very conversation. On Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hear from acting director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.

“Everybody, including the leader, should be trying to get as many facts about this one issue collected as quickly as we can and not reaching very many conclusions on it until we get them,” said one Republican senator. And “Mitch is instinctively careful anyway.”

But rank-and-file senators have been reacting on the fly, with a span of comments ranging from Mitt Romney (R-Utah) saying he is “troubled in the extreme” by Trump bringing up Biden to Zelensky to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) decrying “another pathetic attempt by Democrats to destroy President Trump with falsehoods.”

“Would it have been better that he not brought up Biden’s name? Yes. But the rush to judgment by the other body I think is totally unwarranted,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who had questioned Trump personally about why aid to Ukraine was held up. “You’re talking about changing the results of an election of the United States. Pretty serious."

Trump is intensely interested in the mood on the Hill, calling at least two Senate Republicans directly on Tuesday evening ahead of the transcript’s release, according to people familiar with the conversations, and dialing into a White House meeting with congressional Republicans on Wednesday morning. It became clear at a party lunch that, Romney aside, the party for now has the president’s back.

“The feeling in the room was relief. We all were told that this is some kind of shakedown by Trump,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

McConnell’s autobiography is called the “Long Game,” and it might as well describe how he’s going to handle the road to a potential impeachment trial. Foremost on the majority leader’s mind this week is funding the government past Sept. 30, no easy task given the failure of the House and Senate to agree on spending bills.

Instead the GOP leader has to rally support for an unpopular continuing resolution.

“I don’t think it’s a lay-up by any stretch. Hell, we’ve got 20 people that don’t vote for appropriations,” Cramer said. “I do think his personal attention and energy are probably more focused on getting through the week, getting things done that we need.”

Few would say that funding the government is not a priority. But Democrats say that McConnell’s shrug at Trump’s conversation with Zelensky as the House moves toward impeachment underscores their devil’s bargain with the president.

“I know what a lot of them think personally of him, that he’s an embarrassment and he’s bad for the country," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said of Republicans. "But they get their tax cuts and their young right-wing extremist judges.”