On the eve of the January 13 House vote to impeach Donald Trump, momentum for a conviction initially looked powerful. Every single House Democrat was on board, and there was speculation that a dozen or more House Republicans would vote for impeachment. Mitch McConnell let it be known he wouldn’t oppose a Senate trial, and most Republican senators seemed to be avoiding public comment. It looked for a hot moment like the “Establishment wing” of the Republican Party might take advantage of Trump’s egregious conduct in inciting the January 6 Capitol riot to rid the party of the turbulent mogul once and for all by publicly or privately supporting a vote to bar him from future office.
In the end, only 10 of the 211 House Republicans voted for impeachment, and the most significant split in GOP ranks was between those who maintained Trump had done nothing wrong and those who claimed it was simply time to move on and/or too late from a constitutional point of view to sanction someone about to become an ex-president. The distractions of Biden’s inauguration and the Democratic takeover of the Senate put impeachment-trial talk on a far-back burner for a brief time — possibly just long enough to halt any momentum toward the improbable goal of 17 Senate Republicans voting for conviction once the trial takes place.
To be sure, McConnell hasn’t backed down from the comments he and his closest allies offered initially, which indicated that he was “open” to conviction and regarded the trial outcome as a “vote of conscience” for his conference. And that is, indeed, a departure from the pro-Trump partisanship he exhibited before and during Trump’s first impeachment trial, in 2020.
But McConnell is now getting some public blowback from Senate colleagues for hinting that he might support a conviction, notably from the highly influential weathervane Lindsey Graham, as CNN reports:
Some Trump loyalists say if McConnell and at least 16 of his GOP colleagues join 50 Democrats to convict the ex-President, they’ll see a major backlash from the party’s base that will thwart their hopes of winning back the Senate majority next year.
“What good comes from impeaching a guy in Florida?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a friend of Trump’s who spoke at length with the former President the night before Biden’s inauguration. “I think if any Republican-leader type who embraces that is doing a lot of damage to the party.”
In the wake of a campaign by House conservatives to remove Liz Cheney from her caucus-leadership position for supporting impeachment (over half the House GOP has signed a resolution to dump Cheney), there have been not-so-veiled threats that McConnell could be next if he doesn’t get in line:
“If he does, I don’t know if he can stay as leader,” said one senior GOP senator who said several of his colleagues held similar views and asked not to be named discussing sensitive internal politics.
Other GOP senators were equally as blunt.
“No, no, no,” Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and Trump ally, told CNN when asked if he could support McConnell if he voted to convict Trump, calling such a vote a “dangerous precedent” and adding: “I don’t even think we should be having a trial.”
Now, despite these warnings, McConnell has continued to make censorious noises about Trump’s behavior on January 6, saying on the Senate floor earlier this week, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.” Some will likely interpret such remarks as indicating that ol’ Mitch is leaning toward conviction. But it’s more likely he’s placing himself in the aforementioned camp of Republicans who can deplore Trump’s conduct while finding an excuse to avoid holding him accountable for it.
In navigating this path, McConnell must pay attention, first and foremost, to his own senators, finding a way to keep most of them united — and again, a “yes, but” attitude to condemnations of Trump’s behavior is the path of least resistance. All he really needs to do is to align Republicans unambiguously with conservative legal scholars who claim there is no constitutional sanction for an impeachment trial and conviction of a former president.
But Senate Republicans in general will also be watching public opinion, particularly that of the self-identified Republicans who form their — and for the past four years, Trump’s — base. FiveThirtyEight’s database of surveys taken before Biden’s inauguration showed that well over three-fourths of Republicans – and in many surveys, well over four-fifths – opposed Trump’s removal from office. Now that he’s already gone, opposition to conviction could go even higher, particularly as “the base” hears regularly on Fox News and other conservative outlets that the impeachment trial is either unconstitutional or an exercise in pointless Democratic vengeance.
Yes, there are undoubtedly a number of Senate Republicans who would love to see Trump sidelined in the future, in order to pave the way for their own presidential ambitions. But they won’t act on it, since they cannot afford to alienate hard-core MAGA folk by condemning a man whose reelection all of them supported.
For the moment, Republican Senate dynamics will take a back seat to Democratic decisions about the timing of a trial: Nancy Pelosi has not yet transmitted the article of impeachment to the Senate, nor has she indicated when she will do so amid the uncertainty as to how best to advance Joe Biden’s Cabinet confirmations and legislative agenda. The longer it takes to convene a trial, the more Senate Republicans will likely be inclined to put January 6 in the rearview mirror and keep themselves united in opposition to Biden. Politico is now speculating that the trial, when it happens, may take just three days. McConnell himself is asking that it be delayed until February to give Trump and such lawyers as he can scrape up the time to prepare. The idea that it will end with a McConnell-supported conviction, however, remains fanciful.