Democrats—and more than a few Never-Trump Republicans—had been hopeful that Mitch McConnell might vote with them to convict Donald Trump when his second impeachment reaches the Senate. McConnell’s Tuesday vote in opposition to impeachment made it clear that that won’t happen. Here’s what wasn’t clear: whether and why he’d changed his mind.
It’s been only three weeks since two incumbent GOP senators lost their seats in a run-off election in Georgia, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats and consigning McConnell to the forlorn post of minority leader. The day after the Georgia run-off, aides say, McConnell was fuming.
For four years as the majority leader, he had worked closely with the White House in securing what will be Donald Trump’s most enduring domestic legacy: the appointment of nearly 300 federal judges, and three Supreme Court justices. But McConnell and Trump’s relationship was a marriage of convenience. Personally and temperamentally, they were oil and water. The Kentucky senator has a reverence for the institution he presided over; he mastered its intricate rules and always tried to play “the long game,” as he titled his memoir. Trump was erratic; he didn’t give a damn about tradition and had little discipline about what he said or how he said it.
And when, after losing the November election to Joe Biden, Trump blasted Georgia’s Republican governor and its secretary of state for presiding over what Trump insisted was massive voter fraud in their state, McConnell was enraged. He believed Trump’s effort to undermine the final vote count in Georgia—which Biden won—cost the GOP the two senate seats, because it dissuaded many of his supporters from coming out again to vote for the Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
Then came January 6. Trump supporters at a “Stop the Steal” rally stormed and ransacked McConnell’s beloved Capitol following a speech by the president. The majority leader, it seemed, had had enough. His wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s secretary of transportation, resigned the following day. On January 19, McConnell said publicly: ”The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.” With the House having voted to impeach Trump and a Senate impeachment trial looming, that language suggested McConnell might actually be open to voting for conviction—a prospect that could plausibly move other GOP senators to join him.
Yesterday, that prospect appeared to vanish. Forty-five GOP senators voted in favor of the motion, introduced by McConnell’s Kentucky colleague Rand Paul, asserting that impeaching a president already out of office was unconstitutional. McConnell was one of the 45. The vote makes it all but certain Trump will be acquitted when he is tried next month. (Democrats need 17 GOP senators to join them in voting to convict.)
It looked like a U-turn. But a senior Republican National Committee source who is friendly with McConnell, as well as several of his top aides, tell Newsweek the perception that the senator had been ready to convict Trump is distorted. (All were granted anonymity in order to be candid.) ”Was he angry? Yes. Is he done with Trump? Yes. But did that mean he was going to vote to convict, and to whip Republican votes to convict? I don’t think so,” said the RNC source. “He had called it a ‘vote of conscience.’ You don’t whip votes of conscience.”
McConnell, another friend of his says, had honest, substantive doubts about the constitutionality of impeaching a resident who was no longer in office. Further, he disdained the House vote as a “sham. No due process, no hearings, nothing.” Even if McConnell thought what Trump did was worth impeachment—and he indeed may, this source says—”he’s an institutionalist, he wants things to be done properly. He thought what the House did in this case was half-assed.”
There were also political calculations, of course. McConnell knows impeachment enflames Trump’s already angry base. It also emphasizes the schisms in the GOP: several of the ten Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment now have primary challengers in 2022, including Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican. Any Republican senator who does the same will likely face the same fate.
McConnell, friends say, has some hope that Trump’s influence may fade a bit in the coming years as the country moves on. Impeachment works against that. In Trump world, McConnell knows, it is another grievance the former president can use to fire up his base and raise money for a possible future campaign.
McConnell also knows that Trump left the Republicans who remain in Washington with ”an absolute mess,” says the RNC source. “And Mitch is one of the main people who have to try to clean it up.” He may not vote to convict Trump in the forthcoming Senate trial—that would be incongruous after voting that the entire process is unconstitutional— “but make no mistake, he is not a happy camper.”