No one will shape the fate of Donald Trump in the coming days more than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has left open the possibility of voting to convict the outgoing president over the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.
As the House was voting Wednesday to impeach Trump for a second time, McConnell said in a note to his fellow GOP senators that he is undecided on whether to convict the president. He pledged in the letter to “listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate,” which is expected to begin immediately after Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.
The Kentucky Republican is notoriously pithy, so him saying he isn’t ruling out voting to convict Trump is notable, and is likely intended to serve as a message against further incitement and chaos from White House.
If McConnell were to actually vote against Trump, the math would shift dramatically in favor of conviction: More GOP senators would likely join Trump critics who are already expected to vote to convict, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
No one knows what the majority leader will do. The vote presents McConnell and other Republicans with one last chance to separate themselves from Trump’s toxicity, and possibly even bar him from running for federal office ever again. The trial will also help write one of the final chapters of McConnell’s legacy. In exchange for tacitly supporting Trump and all his chaos, McConnell transformed the federal judiciary with hundreds of conservative judges and tipped the scales in favor of the GOP for decades.
The bar for conviction in the Senate is extremely high, for good reason: two-thirds of the chamber. Democrats are skeptical that enough Republicans ― 17 GOP senators if all Democrats also vote to convict ― will join them.
“I find it hard to believe we’ll get 17,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Thursday in an interview with CNN.
Some Republicans have already come out against convicting Trump due to procedural objections. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump, has reportedly been calling his colleagues and urging them not to break with the president. On Wednesday, he said the House impeached Trump “without a hearing or witness” and urged Biden to convince congressional Democrats to drop the effort.
“If President-elect Biden truly seeks unity, he has an opportunity to make a major step in that direction by rejecting post-presidential impeachment,” Graham tweeted.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a potential 2024 presidential contender, said he opposes impeachment proceedings because the trial will occur after Trump has left office. However, there is some precedent of Congress impeaching officials following their stepping down.
“The Founders designed the impeachment process as a way to remove officeholders from public office—not an inquest against private citizens,” Cotton said in a statement.
Other GOP senators who fiercely defended Trump over the years similarly suggested that the House’s article of impeachment for incitement, which 10 House GOP members voted for, might fall short of the standard required for conviction.
Appearing on CNBC on Wednesday, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) called Trump’s rhetoric “reckless” but added that “the exact words that he used do not rise to ― in my mind anyways ― a criminal level of incitement as we would have to consider.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), meanwhile, said Trump could be barred from seeking public office even if he is ultimately not found guilty by the Senate. The legal avenue would present a potential off-ramp for Republicans who believe what Trump did was wrong but who also aren’t willing to vote to convict him and risk angering his supporters in future elections.
“If the article of impeachment is not followed through in the Senate, if the article of impeachment to incitement of a riot or incitement of an insurrection are followed through in a criminal proceeding, that by itself would ... stop him for running for election to a public office again,” Rounds told Inforum.
Trump’s fate may also rest with more centrist GOP senators like Rob Portman of Ohio, who is close with McConnell. Portman wasn’t happy with Trump’s conduct before the president’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, but he faces a tough reelection fight in 2022. Trump and his allies have promised to primary GOP senators who do not support him, giving senators like Portman much to think about.
Portman said Wednesday in a statement that he would carefully consider the case against Trump, but notably echoed the call for unity other GOP lawmakers have expressed in opposing impeachment.
“All of us should be concerned about the polarization in our country and work toward bringing people together,” he said. “If the Senate conducts an impeachment trial, among my considerations will be what is best to help heal our country rather than deepen our divisions.”