McConnell makes strategic retreat to keep firm grip on Trump trial

By John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett

Mitch McConnell blinked. At least for a moment.

After last-minute pushback from centrist GOP senators, the Senate majority leader slightly eased off his push Tuesday for a compressed calendar during President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. But McConnell still ran all over Democrats on the Senate floor, winning a series of party line votes on the resolution that will govern the trial.

The developments on the first real day of the trial are sure to please Trump, who is eager for Republicans to dispense with impeachment. And it highlighted the brute force McConnell deploys against the minority party, as well as the need to deftly handle his own rank-and-file senators during just the third presidential impeachment trial in history.

“Listen, you’re not going to get any kind of dissent from me. It’s not easy herding a bunch of a cats, so he’s got a difficult task here in terms of organizing everybody,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has criticized McConnell’s tactics in the past but backed him on the impeachment battle. Johnson even argued for providing less debate time during the trial's opening phases, yet he still sided with McConnell.

Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who spent years in the Senate as a conservative agitator, praised the move to keep the caucus together by making a minor compromise.

"We saw Democrats lighting their hair on fire: 'This is an outrageous effort. A cover-up, to have 24 hours of arguments over two days,'" Cruz said. "Senate Republicans did something wise and right which was to say: 'OK we'll make a concession.'"

In the organizing resolution he released on Monday night, McConnell had called for allowing only two days for House managers to present their case against the president, raising the specter of exhausted senators sitting in the chamber until well after midnight. Democrats also charged McConnell with trying to bury the trial in the dead of night, long past when most Americans would have stopped watching.

But a few key Republican senators objected, and McConnell agreed to allow three days — 24 hours in floor time total — for both the House managers and Trump’s defense team to present their opening arguments. The organizing resolution was also revised Tuesday so that the House’s evidence is allowed to be used in the Senate trial, although Trump’s lawyers will still be able to challenge what’s allowed under consideration by senators.

These were concessions, but only the slightest of ones — and the shift gave McConnell further license to ignore Senate Democrats’ broader complaints. With all 52 of his GOP senators united behind him, McConnell was able to defeat a series of Democratic amendments calling for more documents from the White House and other federal agencies caught up in the Ukraine scandal.

On the biggest issue — whether to call additional witnesses now, including former national security advisor John Bolton and others — McConnell refused to yield. At the Kentucky Republican's urging, the Senate postponed a decision on that question until after the opening arguments, despite vehement objections from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

It’s McConnell 101. The Senate majority leader plays by the rules, but he uses them as a weapon to help his cause as much as a restriction on what he can do. The only limits are based on what his members will agree to. And it’s nothing new to his adversaries.

“One thing about McConnell is he’s ruthless at what he wants. He’s ruthless,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “He changes the rules with 51 votes to get what he wants. He changes the rules because he can.”

“The total disinterest in talking to Schumer for months was a clear indication he was going to railroad us,” noted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It’s perfectly consistent with the way he’s managed the Senate up until today. If anybody expected anything different from the way he was going to approach impeachment, shame on them.”

McConnell puts both Republicans and Democrats on the spot by applying maximum pressure. There’s no place for anyone to hide in a McConnell-run Senate.

As the impeachment trial opened on Tuesday afternoon, McConnell spoke extensively on the need for “fairness,” declaring that Trump will finally get a chance to defend himself. McConnell portrayed Trump as a victim of an unfair process in the House, an argument that the president has made passionately for months.

McConnell even presented himself as a defender of the House and bipartisanship itself, a claim that Democrats would surely ridicule.

“Here in the Senate, the president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field with the House Democrats, and will finally be able to present the president’s case. Finally, some fairness,” McConnell said. “On every point, our straightforward resolution will bring the clarity and fairness that everyone deserves — the president of the United States, the House of Representatives, and the American people.”

McConnell also repeated a mantra he’s employed for months in saying he wants to use the “Clinton precedent” for the Trump trial: “Fair is fair.”

Schumer objected furiously to McConnell’s resolution, using dramatic language that shows the stakes for Senate Democrats in this fight. The New York Democrat is aware that McConnell is trying to set up a final verdict within two weeks, possibly by the time Trump gives his State of the Union address on Feb. 4.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., talks to reporters about the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

“On something as important as impeachment, the McConnell resolution is nothing short of a national disgrace,” Schumer said. “This will go down, this resolution, as one of the darker moments in the Senate history. Perhaps even one of the darkest.”

McConnell ignored the comments and kept his focus on his own caucus, where he was trying to maintain GOP unity. In fact, his resolution was changing so fast it left some senators’ heads spinning: As he headed to a party lunch Tuesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he hadn’t even been able to review McConnell’s initial version, let alone the revised one.

Ultimately, GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio), among others, said they couldn’t support the timeline that McConnell was trying to set for the trial. They wanted three calendar days for both sides to present their cases, rather than two. The party debated the matter at the lunch, and only when McConnell’s resolution was read on the Senate floor was it clear that he had backtracked.

Because the objections were from Republicans — and McConnell was relying only on GOP votes to pass the resolution — he had to agree to the change, which could add two days to the proceedings.

The modest retreat also raises questions about whether McConnell will be able to keep all his rank-and-file members in line for the crucial vote on witnesses next week. So far, three Republican senators have expressed openness to hearing from witnesses, but Democrats need one more. And crossing the president and the powerful majority leader would be a tough decision for any GOP senator.

McConnell’s deputies scoffed at the notion that he’d done anything more than give some ground on the cosmetics of the trial.

“The majority leader was correct that nowhere near that amount of time will be taken. But I think as a visual it just seems fairer to spread the 24 hours over [three] days,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who serves on the GOP leadership team.

“I think it probably took some people probably by surprise in squeezing the time constraints,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) before the resolution was altered. “I think he’s got a difficult task in front of him, there’s just no question about it. He’s done an excellent job of listening to us, and I’m sure he’s going to continue do that.”

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