Nothing in recent days has exasperated me more than the desire of Washington reporters to imagine some anti-Trump coup led by Mitch McConnell. I tried to pour cold water on it at New York this week:
A day into the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, and more than two weeks after a test vote that showed how many Senate Republicans wanted to stop the trial before it started, there remains a peculiar, glittering fantasy among Beltway media types that somehow Mitch McConnell will yet find a way to lead his flock onto the path of righteousness in time to save his party and prevent a Trump comeback. Here’s a report from Bloomberg:
“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is signaling to fellow Republicans that the final vote on Donald Trump’s impeachment is matter of conscience and that senators who disputed the constitutionality of the trial could still vote to convict the former president, according to three people familiar with his thinking.
“The Kentucky Republican has also suggested that he hasn’t made up his mind how he’ll vote, two of the people said, even though he voted Tuesday to declare it unconstitutional for the Senate to hear the case against a former president.
“That position is starkly different than McConnell’s declaration at the start of Trump’s first impeachment trial last year that he did not consider himself an impartial juror.”
This intel was gobbled up and posted at the top of Wednesday’s edition of Politico Playbook, the daily bread of the Capitol set. Both the Bloomberg and Playbook accounts have “to be sure” acknowledgements that Trump’s conviction remains unlikely. But there’s something dreamy and almost mystical about the abiding belief that the wily McConnell is operating behind the scenes to save his party from a MAGA future. It was, indeed, a raging counter-narrative in Washington until January 26, when McConnell joined 44 other Senate Republicans in supporting Rand Paul’s effort to preempt the swearing in of senators on grounds that trying an ex-president is unconstitutional.
Technically, it’s true that the January 26 vote was on a motion to table Paul’s resolution stopping the trial. So, in theory, Republicans could say they just wanted to hear more about Paul’s deep constitutional thinking, and did not necessarily share it. But that’s certainly not what anyone understood the vote to be about at the time. Paul designed his gambit to show that conviction was impossible, and accomplished his purpose.
Those who detect the moving of tectonic plates far beneath the surface of Senate Republican sentiment may point to Senator Bill Cassidy’s epiphany on Tuesday. He was the one Republican who apparently changed his mind since January 26 about the constitutionality of the trial. But what was his reasoning? He was pretty clear about it in interviews:
“The House managers were focused, they were organized … they made a compelling argument. President Trump’s team, they were disorganized. … One side is doing a great job and the other side is doing a terrible job. … As an impartial juror, I’m going to vote for the side that did the good job.”
Voting for the team of lawyers who put on a better show on a matter of constitutional law is not a very good look, though in Cassidy’s defense, he is a gastroenterologist by training, not an attorney. He’s already been rebuked by his own state Republican Party, and isn’t exactly showing his colleagues the benefits of changing sides.
As for McConnell, it’s easy enough for him to call the ultimate guilty or not guilty verdict a “vote of conscience.” In Senate-speak, all that means is that he won’t whip the vote and make it a matter of party conference discipline. But here’s the thing: Unless there’s some previously undetected movement in his conference, he doesn’t have to.
So why do sources “familiar with his thinking” keep whispering in the ear of reporters that McConnell is still on the fence? That’s unclear, though they could be trying to force the Kentuckian’s hand via the media, tapping into the intense desire of the permanent Washington Establishment for a return to the pre-Trump days when politicians didn’t incite mobs to attack the Capitol.
Most likely, a misunderstanding of the current fault lines dividing Republican elected officials is the problem. Since January 6, only a handful (like the ten House Republicans who voted for impeachment) have been willing to fully turn their backs on Trump. The vast majority have been divided between those who argued Trump did nothing wrong (and that his allies who tried to overturn the election results in Congress were brave patriots trying to “stop the steal”), and those who conceded bad presidential behavior but wanted to forget about it and move on to the crucial task of opposing Joe Biden’s agenda. McConnell has been in the latter camp all along. There’s a vast gap between that position and the fateful step of telling Republican voters they have no right to vote for Donald Trump in the future, which is what a conviction would mean. If some force exists that will ultimately save the GOP from the views of its own base, it’s not going to be Mitch McConnell or the Senate Republican conference, no matter how poorly Trump’s attorneys perform.