McConnell wants a low-risk no-frills process in which the GOP does its constitutional duty and then quickly — emphasis on quickly — moves on. If he thought he and his caucus could get away with it, no doubt they’d accept the articles of impeachment from the House and hold an immediate vote on whether to remove Trump from office, dumping the whole matter in the trash once the requisite 67 votes fail to materalize. Total time elapsed: 20 minutes, tops. But Senate rules say they have to hold a trial of some sort, and McConnell knows that endangered Republicans like Collins and Gardner want a process that makes it seem like the party is at least pretending to take this seriously. That subject seems to be consuming a fair amount of McConnell’s thinking on impeachment, in fact. How long do they have to drag the trial out before voters will say, “Okay, this at least vaguely resembles an earnest fact-finding effort”?
Trump, on the other hand, wants a “show,” because of course he does. When in his life has he ever been offered the option of a spectacle and decided, “No, let’s do the low-key thing”?
He may not get an option this time. According to CNN, McConnell is right in line with the rest of the GOP leadership in wanting to dispense with the trial ASAP. That means no witnesses for the defense. Trump does … not agree.
In conversations with the White House, the Kentucky Republican has made clear he hopes to end the trial as soon as he can, an effort to both get impeachment off his lap and protect his conference from potentially damaging votes should the process break out into partisan warfare. That will include a continuous whip count until McConnell feels he has the votes to acquit the President and end the show. He has even floated a 10-day minimum during these talks, one person said.
But the show is exactly what Trump wants. He’s made clear to advisers privately that rather than end the trial as quickly as possible, he is hoping for a dramatic event, according to two people familiar with his thinking. He wants Hunter Biden, Rep. Adam Schiff and the whistleblower to testify. He wants the witnesses to be live, not clips of taped depositions. And he’s hoping to turn it into a spectacle, which he thinks is his best chance to hurt Democrats in the election.
People close to the President say this is because he has been sitting back and watching as current and former aides testified for hours before lawmakers about his behavior that they described as inappropriate, problematic and potentially dangerous.
Infuriated, Trump has been told he will have his day to defend himself soon, one person said.
I like the idea of a “continuous whip count.” Imagine McConnell huddling with Romney, Collins, Murkowski, Gardner and a few others every day after testimony concludes. “Can we vote now or do you need another eight hours of this crap on TV so that you can look like you’re serious about it?” Moderate Republicans are looking for a “fulsome and fair process,” says CNN. Or at least the appearance of one.
What McConnell wants is the impeachment equivalent of a directed verdict. In a criminal trial, the defense can ask the judge for that after the prosecution has finished presenting its case. The idea is that the D.A. has fallen so far short of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on the evidence that it’s not worth wasting any more time on the matter. The court should simply rule for the defense and end it right there. The Senate GOP is both judge and jury in an impeachment trial since they have the power to overrule John Roberts’s rulings from the bench via majority vote, so McConnell’s imagining a similar scene for Trump. House prosecutors make their case, Trump’s lawyers move for the equivalent of a directed verdict, the Senate votes, and voila. It’s all over. Not guilty. No need to worry about Collins or Gardner having to vote on whether to call Hunter Biden to the stand, knowing that Democrats in their home states will be enraged if they vote yes and Republicans will be enraged if they vote no.
Here’s McConnell in his own words:
“Here is what I would anticipate,” McConnell said about how the trial will play out. “The House managers would come over and make their argument. The President’s lawyers would then respond. And at the point, the Senate has two choices: It could go down the path of calling witnesses and basically having another trial. Or it could decide — and again, 51 senators could make that decision — that they’ve heard enough and believe they know what would happen and could move on the two articles of impeachment sent over to us from the House. No decisions have been made yet. They will be made later.”
He’s imagining Trump’s defense as tantamount to holding a completely separate second trial, which is what it would sort of be. Trump doesn’t want to counter the Democrats’ assertions about what he allegedly told Gordon Sondland regarding a quid pro quo, he wants to hold a mini-trial about the Bidens and Burisma and whether Ukraine framed Russia for hacking the DNC and Podesta servers. Anything could happen — music to Trump’s ears, poison to McConnell’s heart.
Trump will be whining about this tomorrow on Twitter, I assume, but McConnell holds all the cards. He’s not going to make an agonizing process even harder for Senate Republicans next fall by forcing them to take votes they don’t want to take. Trump may be willing to sacrifice a Senate seat in Maine or Colorado for the pleasure of seeing Hunter Biden squirm on the witness stand but Cocaine Mitch isn’t. Righty media will yell and scream at him for wimping out but there are a trillion news cycles to soften opinions between now and next fall, many of which will be devoted to (1) the GOP behaving like good soldiers and acquitting Trump, (2) the need to hold back the socialist takeover of America by reelecting every Republican in the country, and (3) some sort of consolation prize for Trump in which Lindsey Graham’s committee does a half-hearted investigation of Burisma and maybe interviews Hunter Biden.
It’ll be fine. Trump will get over it.
Here’s Amanda Carpenter playing devil’s advocate on CNN today. There’s certainly an argument that a spectacle of the sort Trump wants might work for him and for some Republicans. Whether it would work for Republicans who are facing purple electorates is a different matter.