McConnell Prefers to Hold ’Em, but Also Knows When to Fold ’Em
WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell never backs down — unless he has to.
Facing a rare revolt from a wide selection of Senate Republicans this week over the rules for President Trump’s impeachment trial, Mr. McConnell swiftly surrendered.
Having written the rules mainly in secret, keeping the final text from even many of his fellow Republican senators until the last moment, Mr. McConnell quickly quelled a brewing backlash from his colleagues by agreeing to relax some of the most stringent aspects he had drafted.
His retreat on Tuesday was a reminder that Mr. McConnell is an astute reader of the desires and political imperatives of the people who have made him the majority leader.
It is a skill he has honed over his years in leadership. But in the Trump era, his mastery is being challenged anew. Mr. McConnell, of Kentucky, must balance the wishes and interests of his members with the whims of a president who cares little for the two things that drive the Senate: consensus and precedent.
Never have those conflicting imperatives collided quite as drastically for Mr. McConnell as now, as he manages Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial with an eye toward protecting the president, his Senate majority and himself.
Mr. McConnell’s strategic withdrawal ultimately paid off by keeping all of his Republican colleagues marching nearly in lock step into the early-morning hours on Wednesday, through 11 votes on Democratic demands for new evidence in the trial and other changes to the rules. Only one, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, defected on a single Democratic proposal, to afford more time for each side to respond to motions in the trial. Republicans stood together to kill the rest.
The results prompted his colleagues to warn not to read too much into the initial pushback against Mr. McConnell, saying Republicans were now firmly on the same page as opening arguments against Mr. Trump began.
“The conference is united in our view of how we move forward over the next six days,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership.
But Mr. McConnell’s rare retreat illustrated the risks he faces of running afoul of fellow Republicans as he tries to align with the wishes of the White House. And his response suggests that as the trial marches forward — with more conflicts to come over whether to subpoena witnesses or hear new evidence — Mr. McConnell will maintain a sharp focus on keeping Republicans happy.
“He leads, and if the conference expresses its will as different, then he leads that way,” said Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota.
Mr. McConnell has shown in the past that he can be pushed from his position if internal pressure becomes great enough. Fearing an embarrassing division among Republicans on a criminal justice overhaul, Mr. McConnell for years resisted putting the bipartisan legislation on the floor despite overwhelming support. Prodded by the president, Mr. McConnell finally relented in 2018 and the measure passed with almost 90 votes — including his own.
In the days leading to the disclosure of Mr. McConnell’s trial proposal, the focus was on whether it would guarantee witnesses, as sought by Democrats, or simply allow a future vote on the matter, following a bipartisan set of rules set in 1999 for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
But when the details became public on Monday night, only hours before a debate on them on the Senate floor, the proposal also included an unexpected compressed timetable for opening arguments — 24 hours over two days — and required a separate vote on accepting the House impeachment record into evidence, rather than taking it automatically, as had been done in the past.
Officials with knowledge about the developments said the White House sought the compressed time period. The president’s allies feared that allowing Democrats three days to present their case would allow them to drag it out through Saturday, ending the first week — and heading into the Sunday talk shows — with no formal response from the president’s defenders. The White House did not like that idea, and was not particularly concerned about the optics for Senate Republicans of squeezing the proceedings into marathon, 12-hour sessions that would stretch long into the evening.
But Republican senators quickly raised concerns privately, suggesting that the restrictions would open the door to harsh criticism that they were trying to short-circuit the trial — a claim they were eager to avoid — and also strayed too far from the precedents of the Clinton trial they were relying on to justify their stance on witnesses.
During a Republican lunch shortly before the trial convened Tuesday, Ms. Collins stepped forward to express reservations about the time limits. Her sentiments were quickly embraced by several other senators, including some not known for raising objections. They encouraged Mr. McConnell and his aides to rethink their plans.
Given the resistance, Mr. McConnell acquiesced, with a top aide hurriedly rewriting the resolution to allow three days for the arguments and the acceptance of the House record without a separate vote.
The move allowed Mr. McConnell to avoid the spectacle of a fracture among Republicans at the outset of the trial, and he was willing to break from the White House’s plan if needed to do so. A loss of just four Republicans could swing control of the trial away from the majority leader, an unsettling prospect for him.
“We saw Democrats lighting their hair on fire — ‘this is an outrageous effort, a cover-up’ — to have 24 hours of argument over two days,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. “But you know what?” Mr. Cruz added. “I think Senate Republicans did something wise and right and said, ‘O.K. We’ll make a concession.’”
White House officials appeared relatively undisturbed by the outcome, and the administration now anticipates its defense will begin by Saturday, if not before. White House officials see Mr. McConnell as an extremely powerful ally as they try to fight off the Democrats.
“He’s a strong partner,” said Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs and a veteran Senate staff member with a deep knowledge of the institution.
Democrats tried to claim that public pressure resulting from their campaign for witnesses and a fair trial framework influenced Republicans, calling it a hopeful sign that Republicans might be willing to go their own way and endorse calling witnesses later in the trial. But McConnell allies scoffed at that idea, saying that Democrats are irrelevant to the majority leader as long as he has his members behind him.
Mr. McConnell has certainly demonstrated that he is willing to endure the harshest of Democratic criticism as long as he retains a hold on his own membership. Democrats pounded him for months over his blockade of Judge Merrick B. Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016, but nearly all Republicans backed his maneuver and he never gave an inch.
Resolving the sometimes divergent views of the administration and his Republican colleagues has taken careful management by Mr. McConnell, and he has on occasion had to send a strong message down Pennsylvania Avenue. For instance, when Mr. Trump began making noises last year that he might want the Senate to take up a health care bill — a dismal prospect for senators facing re-election — Mr. McConnell used an interview with Politico to make it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing to with the issue and that the president should save his energy.
Similarly, Mr. McConnell has counseled the White House against seeking a quick vote to dismiss the impeachment charges, warning that there was not enough Republican support for doing so before arguments were made in the trial. Mr. Trump’s team appeared to have listened and declined to offer such a motion when it had the chance on Wednesday.
Now, Mr. McConnell is working to convince his colleagues that expanding the trial to include witnesses — a prospect Mr. Trump’s team wants to avoid at all costs — would be more trouble than it was worth.
“Pursing those witnesses could indefinitely delay the Senate trial and draw our body into a protracted and complex legal fight over presidential privilege,” he said.
That message could well prevail. Far more often than not, Mr. McConnell’s colleagues follow his lead rather than try to persuade him otherwise.
“If I was torn between what he wants to do and what I want to do strategically, I wouldn’t flip a coin,” Mr. Cramer said. “I would just yield it to his expertise, wisdom and frankly, results.”
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