As soon as the House votes to impeach President Donald Trump — which will likely happen next week — it is no longer in charge of the process. The situation then goes over to the Republican-controlled Senate, where Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. will preside, but the GOP otherwise can control much of the length and substance of the process.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is indicating he’ll endeavor to give the White House whatever kind of trial it wants.
Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Thursday night, McConnell made a point of saying that he would be coordinating with White House counsel Pat Cipollone every step of the way.
“Everything I do during this I’m coordinating with the White House counsel,” McConnell said. “There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this to the extent that we can.”
He added later that “exactly how we go forward I’m going to coordinate with the president’s lawyers, so there won’t be any difference between us on how to do this.”
And then he said that “I’m going to take my cues from the president’s lawyers.”
McConnell also, notably, said there is “no chance” Trump will be removed from office. This, he indicated, is why he’s not treating the trial with much regard.
The repetition of the first talking point made it pretty clear that McConnell very much intended to say all of this. But it’s worth taking stock of how remarkable a statement it is — giving the White House any say over how the trial would be handled would be something, but McConnell says he’ll coordinate everything — and how discordant it is relative to many of his fellow GOP senators.
Those senators have, in many cases, declined to comment on impeachment and the Ukraine scandal because they will serve as jurors in the Senate trial. For some, it was certainly a cop-out to avoid having to comment on the substance of the Ukraine scandal, which, however you slice it, doesn’t look good for Trump. But now that McConnell is effectively saying he’ll let the defendant’s lawyers dictate how the trial will be handled, those professions of respect for the process ring pretty hollow.
“I’m a juror, and I’m comfortable not speaking,” Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, told The Washington Post in late October. Pressed again, he said, “I said I’m comfortable not speaking.”
“I don’t need a strategy for impeachment, because I may be a juror someday,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, said.
“I’d be a juror, so I have no comment,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, added.
McConnell is effectively prejudging the outcome and declaring it all to be a waste of time. Before one witness is called, he’s signaling he’s inclined to make it a short process, because it’s just not worth the time.
Of course, in context, this is hardly that surprising from McConnell. The Senate majority leader has in recent years reveled in his political victories, even as he’s drawn criticism for his ruthless tactics. He has said that the most consequential thing he did was block Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. In doing so, he didn’t even give him a hearing and cited a somewhat-mythical “Biden rule” against confirming justices in the final year of a president’s term.
And in the same interview Thursday, McConnell both assured that he wouldn’t abide by the “Biden rule” himself and patted himself on the back for blocking Obama’s other judicial picks. Hannity brought up those failures by Obama to confirm the judges as if it was some big mystery that he didn’t get more.
“I was surprised that former President Barack Obama left so many vacancies and didn’t try to fill those positions,” Hannity said.
But McConnell wasn’t about to let that one slide without taking credit for his bare-knuckle tactics.
“I’ll tell you why: I was in charge of what we did the last two years of the Obama administration,” McConnell said proudly.
The logical extension of McConnell’s comments is that the judicial system is something to be gamed politically, which is not something people used to say out loud. But given his attitude toward that — and the political payoff the strategy has incurred — is it really any surprise McConnell is emboldened enough to come out and just say he’ll let the White House dictate its own impeachment trial?
Aaron Blake is senior political reporter at The Washington Post, writing for The Fix.