Mitch McConnell's new Halloween role: Gravedigger of impeachment

Mitch McConnell has already agreed to whitewash Trump. But can he find a way to avoid a Senate trial completely?

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published October 8, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and US President Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and US President Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

Time after time, the president came to a fork in the road. Time after time, he had the opportunity to choose the noble and honorable path. Time after time, he chose the path of lies and lawlessness — for the simple reason that he did not want to endanger his hold on public office.
— Sen. Mitch McConnell 
on Bill Clinton in 1999.

Speaking for the prosecution in Clinton's impeachment trial, McConnell accused the 42nd president of seeking "to win at any cost. If it meant lying to the American people. If it meant lying to his Cabinet. ... If it meant tampering with witnesses and obstructing justice. ... The name of the game was winning. Winning at any cost.” 

Twenty years later, McConnell has gained immense political power as Senate majority leader under President Trump. Conveniently, his righteous indignation has gone missing. 

McConnell hasn’t run to the cable news cameras to debase himself in defense of Trump,  as his Republican colleagues in the House have done since Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry. But he has proudly proclaimed that he has prejudged the inquiry already, and has concluded that Trump must be exonerated. 

In a newly released Facebook ad, McConnell says that "the way that impeachment stops is with a Senate Majority, with me as Majority Leader." 

McConnell's campaign ad continues: "Nancy Pelosi and the left-wing mob want to impeach President Trump. Donate right now and help Mitch stop her!" 

That’s quite the turn for a man who, as the Washington Post notes, once called Richard Nixon’s role in Watergate “totally repugnant.”  McConnell has publicly declared that the only factor that influences his decision is party affiliation. Whatever else he may be, Donald Trump is nominally a Republican. If McConnell can find a way to retain and maximize Republican power, he will do it. 

That’s why even the most ridiculous ideas floated by Trump’s sycophants in right-wing media can hold serious sway. 

Take, for instance, Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton's argument that McConnell should implement what is known as the "nuclear option" if the House votes to impeach Trump.

"The Senate is going to have to try any impeachment," Fitton acknowledged to Fox News' Jeanine Pirro on Saturday. "And if I were the Senate majority leader, I'd tell the House, 'This is dead on arrival, we're changing the rules, we are going to kill it before it even gets out of the cradle. And we will not follow up with impeachment trial.'"

McConnell previously found a way to block Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, from even being considered, let alone an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. That won Mitch the title of “gravedigger of American democracy.” He also promised to “plow right through” with Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, even before the Senate heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her. Now McConnell wants to do the same now with Trump: Acquit the defendant before the jury has even seen the evidence.

Fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — still fending off protests over her handling of the Kavanaugh vote, and facing a difficult re-election battle next year —  has acknowledged it would be inappropriate to comment on the issues in a potential trial where she would be a juror. McConnell, the metaphorical jury foreman, has already decided the accused is innocent before the trial begins. Such prejudgment would disqualify any juror in a normal criminal or civil trial and should be seen as obstruction in McConnell’s case. 

Yet as Trump attempts to normalize brazen corruption and calling on an ever-growing list of political opponents to be impeached in his stead, he has no real reason to fear a Senate trial. McConnell likely sees his pledge on impeachment as his best bet to preserve his own political power. Like nearly every Republican senator up for re-election next year, his path to remaining in office is through Trump’s voters. 

To be sure, if Trump is impeached by the House and McConnell refuses to hold a trial, the optics will be terrible. Impeachment is a moral imperative regardless of the outcome, and in a normal process, Senate Republicans would be forced to go on the record as believing Trump did nothing wrong. But if any other politician is as ruthless and corrupt as Donald Trump, it's McConnell. In that sense, they are perfectly paired.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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