Mitch McConnell does it again

Why Trump's inevitable acquittal will be the Senate majority leader's greatest victory

Mitch McConnell.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images, vitalik19111992/iStock)

With all apologies to the president, who I'm sure is going to enjoy his festival of innocence very much over the coming days and weeks, the person who deserves the most credit for the acquittal that is now a foregone conclusion in the Senate impeachment trial is not Donald Trump himself but Mitch McConnell.

I say this not because I expected Trump to be removed from office for pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. That was never in the cards. But I don't think that anyone expected this process to go the way it has, which is to say, from the perspective of the GOP Senate majority leader, more or less perfectly. With the exception of Susan Collins's meaningless vote in favor of calling witnesses (which will do her no favors this fall with liberals in her home state), there have been no significant GOP defections. Even Lisa Murkowski, who even on Friday was considered likely to vote against her party, has dismissed impeachment as "partisan" and something that has "degraded" Congress. Moderate Republicans and conservatives who have been occasional — and sometimes more than occasional — critics of the president were in lockstep here: Mitt Romney, the only other vote for witnesses, did not make much of a fuss throughout the Senate phase of the proceedings, nor did Ben Sasse. Even Lamar Alexander, who is retiring and has absolutely nothing to lose, took one for the team.

Meanwhile there is a very real possibility that when the actual vote on acquittal takes place there could be as many as three Democrats lining up with the GOP (West Virginia's Joe Manchin, Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, and Alabama's Doug Jones). This would mean, among other things, that McConnell and his colleagues will not be accused of pushing through the end of impeachment on a party-line vote.

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How did McConnell manage to keep his party in line not only with himself but with a White House that seemed to change its mind about messaging and strategy on an almost hourly basis? In part, I think, by sitting back and allowing Democrats to do most of the work for him. Instead of a heavy-handed pressure campaign that would almost certainly have spilled over into print, he simply allowed Jerry Nadler and the other House impeachment managers to make fools of themselves. MSNBC audiences might have enjoyed watching Nadler accuse Republican senators whose chamber he was visiting of engaging in a "cover-up" and preparing for a "vote against the United States." Collins and Murkowski were not. Both issued statements calling his remarks offensive, and the admonition to "remember that they are addressing the world's greatest deliberative body" from John Roberts on Monday, while ostensibly directed at both the House manager and Trump's counsel, only underscored their feelings. Nor did Elizabeth Warren do her side any favors by essentially declaring Roberts illegitimate. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

The genius of McConnell's hands-off strategy was that it was not incompatible with allowing his other members to take as hard of a line as they wished. While moderates focused on second-order procedural questions and tone policed Democrats, Rand Paul attempted to put the name of the so-called whistleblower into the Senate record and Josh Hawley made plans for forcing Joe and Hunter Biden to testify.

Here it is worth comparing McConnell's handling of impeachment in the Senate with Nancy Pelosi's in the House. Pelosi spent much of 2019 publicly opposing any effort towards impeachment and came around only reluctantly when it appeared that she had no other choice if she wanted to keep her members happy. After that she made a point of superintending the process directly, setting up the timeline, limiting the actual articles that were passed to two rather vague ones (as opposed to bribery, for example). She seemed to give the impression that even though impeachment went against her instincts, she had to be the one in charge of every aspect of it. For her it was ultimately an exercise in regaining control of her caucus. McConnell, by contrast, never saw his authority seriously questioned, in large part because he was never put in a position in which he was forced to exercise it.

Forget The Art of the Deal. McConnell is the one who needs to write a management tips book.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.