McConnell courts GOP hard-liners, moderates and Trump as impeachment trial looms

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For McConnell, he has to deal with an angry president who dismisses the impeachment saga as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt”; moderate Republican senators anxious for the case to proceed with at least a patina of impartiality; GOP hard-liners who want to dismiss the charges outright or alternately call Joe and Hunter Biden as witnesses; a united Democratic caucus eager to score points at the Republicans’ expense; and constituents back home who want to see how McConnell delivers as he runs for reelection to a record seventh term in the Senate.

“He’s been around a long time. And he’s close to the vest,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team. “The thing he has on his radar screen is … 51 [votes]. Where can he get to 51? And no matter what his personal beliefs might be or how he feels about it. And I think that’s really the difficulty he has, trying to weave that.”

With a nod to his hold on at least 51 GOP votes, McConnell also told reporters that Senate Republicans will begin the impeachment proceedings without any Democratic involvement. Debate on the thorny issues of calling witnesses or introducing new documentary evidence will wait until after the House presents its case against Trump and the president’s defense team has a chance to respond. That delay buys McConnell crucial time to get his conference in order during the next two weeks.

“I announced that all 53 of us in our conference had agreed on an initial resolution to go forward. And that remains the case,” McConnell said at the news conference. “All 53 of us have reached an understanding very, very similar to one that was achieved at the beginning of the [Clinton] impeachment trial.”

A frustrated Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said McConnell, knowing he has the votes to go ahead with the trial rules of his choosing, won’t even talk to him about witnesses or anything else impeachment-related at this point.

“I asked [McConnell] four times to sit down so we could negotiate witnesses and documents,” Schumer complained on Tuesday. “He said ‘no’ each time. I’m always open to talking to him.”

In public and private, McConnell has talked about his frequent interactions with Trump — who has gone from lambasting the majority leader on Twitter to offering nothing but praise for how the Kentucky Republicans runs the Senate.

White House Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Ueland said Trump and McConnell have a “very strong” relationship.

“They have a lot of conversations, and I don’t think there’s any problem between the two of them in terms of how their being crisp and clear with each other on the various priorities each has pulling together this trial process,” he said.

Trump has alternated between calling for outright dismissal of the impeachment articles to demanding testimony under oath from the Bidens, as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

“I personally think we’re legitimizing an illegitimate process. We ought to move immediately to dismissal,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who declined to comment on McConnell’s handling of the trial. “They denied [Trump] due process. And for that reason I don’t want to legitimize it.”

But McConnell made clear on Tuesday there’s “little to no sentiment” among Senate Republicans to dismiss the trial, showing the GOP leader is also trying to keep his most aggressive members in line as well.

The long-delayed start of the Trump trial crept closer as Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that the House will vote Wednesday to transmit the articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate. The House charged Trump on Dec. 18 with abuse of power and obstructing congressional investigations following allegations that the president withheld military aid from Ukraine until that country announced it had opened an investigation into Joe Biden, a top 2020 rival.

Pelosi has not announced which Democrats will serve as managers for the House impeachment case, although that is expected to happen Wednesday.

After the Senate receives the articles, Chief Justice John Roberts — who will preside over the Trump trial — will swear in senators. McConnell has announced that the trial will begin in earnest next week with a vote on the rules package.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said portions of the organizing resolution “were still up in the air,” but he and McConnell indicated there was little likelihood that a motion to dismiss the charges before the opening phase of the trial would be included.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 4 Senate Republican, said McConnell is right to hold on to the trial resolution until next week, despite complaints from Democrats about kept being in the dark.

“If I was him, I certainly wouldn’t disclose it because then Nancy Pelosi could say, ‘Oh, now that I’ve seen the rules, I’m not gonna send these [articles] over.’ Why throw your hand in when you’ve won the game?”