Because while the president’s staff is focused on the ongoing impeachment proceedings in the House regarding his attempts to coerce Ukraine into helping his reelection efforts, Trump’s ultimate fate is more likely to hinge on the calculations of a single lawmaker from the other chamber, Kentucky’s McConnell.
And although McConnell would certainly rather keep his control over the Senate and have a Republican in the White House, a number of Republicans predicted that, if Trump’s standing among voters were to fall even further, McConnell would choose his own political future over Trump’s.
“I’m sure he’d prefer both. But, if he has to choose, yes, the Senate is his higher priority,” said one former top GOP congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly assess McConnell. The former aide could not predict how low that approval rating would have to drop. “That’s the $64,000 question.”
On Tuesday, as additional witnesses testified about Trump’s efforts to use $391 million in military aid as leverage to force Ukraine to announce politically useful investigations, McConnell told reporters: “It’s inconceivable to me that there will be 67 votes to remove the president from office.”
The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of those present to remove a president who has been impeached by the House. If all 47 Democrats were to vote that way, it would require 20 Republicans to vote with them for Trump to be forced out.
“I think most Republicans are going to fall on a spectrum ranging from no big deal to moderately alarmed to believing this was very bad judgment ― but that it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP consultant in Kentucky and a former McConnell campaign aide. “I think the White House will need to give Republicans the latitude to express those varying opinions as long as they hold the line against votes to convict.”
But Trump’s problem is that while he is feared by Republican senators — and likely less so now than he has been, given recent GOP losses in Kentucky and Louisiana governors’ races, despite his campaign visits — he is not particularly respected or liked. Former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said that if the Senate were to hold a secret ballot to convict Trump, “at least 35” Republicans would vote to do so.
Which means that Republican senators’ loyalty to Trump likely goes no further than to the extent it benefits them politically — and they could well abandon him if it appears that doing so is more likely to ensure their own reelections.
McConnell will shrewdly play Trump’s game until a clear majority of voters in enough states that Republican senators need to hold ... turn on Trump. Rick Tyler, Republican political consultant
In the case of McConnell, the limits of his loyalty are more likely to be linked to the fates of the half dozen or so of his most vulnerable Republican members in the coming 2020 election. With that current 53-47 majority, if just four Republicans lose reelection, McConnell would no longer be majority leader — a title he has sought for decades.
Meaning Trump’s fate will be less tied to his polling in safe, Trump-friendly states than to his approval numbers in places like Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and Arizona, where GOP senators are all facing challenging races.
“If Trump is not removed, all those senators lose,” said William Weld, a former Massachusetts governor and a Reagan-era Justice Department official who is now running against Trump for the 2020 GOP nomination.
He recalled the aftermath of the 1986 elections, when Republicans lost the Senate. “It’s such a feeling of powerlessness, and it’s one that Mitch has had in the past, and he doesn’t want to have it back,” he said.
Former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, who is also running for the 2020 GOP presidential nomination, said McConnell’s primary goal will be to keep Republican control of the Senate. “Everything else is a distant second to that,” he said. “They will dump Trump in a nanosecond if it helps the GOP retain the Senate. And remember, none of the Senate Republicans like or fear Trump. They fear his voters.”
Rick Tyler, a Republican political consultant who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP primaries, said McConnell understands that the party is better off without Trump heading into the 2020 election.
“McConnell will shrewdly play Trump’s game until a clear majority of voters in enough states that Republican senators need to hold to keep control turn on Trump,” Tyler said. “At that point, he will dump Trump.”
Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry in the House after a whistleblower filed a complaint that the president was withholding congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine unless its leaders announced investigations politically useful to Trump’s 2020 reelection.
According to witness testimony as well as the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as well as support a conspiracy theory which falsely claims that Russian intelligence agencies did not help Trump win the 2016 election, but rather it was Ukrainian officials who framed Russia by using fake evidence. He made the military aid contingent on Ukraine publicly announcing the probes but then backed down after the White House learned that the whistleblower’s complaint on the matter was about to reach Congress.
John Ryder, a former Republican National Committee member from Tennessee, said few people outside of Washington, D.C., are paying much attention to the impeachment hearings. He said Republicans in particular are wary of the new effort because of the long-running investigation into Trump’s relationship with Russia, which did not result in articles of impeachment or a prosecution of the president.
“They’re suffering a little bit of ‘boy who cried wolf’ syndrome,” he said, adding that Trump’s approval ratings, after dipping a few points when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of the impeachment inquiry, are back to the low 40s.
He said that if the percentage of people approving of Trump starts falling to the low 30s, senators who currently back Trump will start to rethink that position. “If you move public opinion, you start to move senators,” he said.
Igor Bobic contributed to this report.