WASHINGTON (AP) — Seldom has Mitch McConnell signaled so little about such a consequential vote.
While many expect the Senate's top Republican to back acquitting former President Donald Trump of inciting rioters who assaulted the Capitol last month, no one is really sure. The Washington political universe and the world beyond will collectively hold its breath when the Senate impeachment trial roll call reaches the Kentuckian's name.
Over 36 years in the Senate, the measured McConnell has earned a reputation for inexpressiveness in the service of caution. This time, the suspense over how he'll vote underscores how much is at stake for McConnell and his party, though it seems extremely unlikely that 17 GOP senators will join all 50 Democrats to convict Trump.
“The overwhelming number of Republican voters don’t want Trump convicted, so that means any political leader has to tread carefully,” said John Feehery, a former top congressional GOP aide. While Feehery noted that McConnell was clearly outraged over the attack, he said, “He’s trying to keep his party together.”
A vote to acquit by McConnell — the chamber's most influential Republican and longest-serving GOP leader ever — would leave the GOP's factions locked in their struggle to define itself in the post-Trump presidency. A guilty vote could do more to roil GOP waters by signaling an attempt to yank the party away from a figure still revered by most of its voters.
Either way, McConnell's decision could influence the party's short- and long-term election prospects and affect the political clout and legacy of both Trump and the Senate minority leader.
Just minutes after the Democratic-led House impeached Trump on Jan. 13 for inciting insurrection, McConnell flashed a blinking yellow light. He wrote to his GOP colleagues that he’d “not made a final decision” about how he’d vote at the Senate trial.
It was an eye-opening departure from the opposition McConnell expressed rapidly when the House impeached Trump in December 2019 for trying to force Ukraine to send him political dirt on now-President Joe Biden and other Democrats.
In addition, McConnell told associates he thought Trump perpetrated impeachable offenses and saw the moment as a chance to distance the GOP from the damage the tumultuous Trump could inflict on it, a Republican strategist told The Associated Press at the time, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Yet as the trial began this week, McConnell was among the 44 GOP senators who voted against proceeding at all on the grounds that Trump was no longer president. Just six Republicans voted to back a trial, suggesting little prospect of 17 of them joining Democrats and supporting conviction.
By all accounts, McConnell has not lobbied senators on impeachment, instead telling them to vote their consciences. His public words and demeanor have been equally unrevealing. “We’re all going to listen to what the lawyers have to say and making the arguments and work our way through it,” he said two weeks ago.
McConnell has spent the trial’s first week in his seat in the Senate chamber, staring straight ahead. A pool report from a reporter watching from the press gallery Friday said, “McConnell was as stoic as ever, looking like a wax statue of himself in Madame Tussauds with his hands clasped in his lap.”
A McConnell vote to convict could give cover to wavering Republicans to join him. Even if Trump is acquitted, a substantial number of Republicans voting guilty would cement for history that there was bipartisan support for repudiating him over the riot at the Capitol.
That could tar Trump's political appeal should he seek office again and further dull the impact his endorsements of other GOP candidates might have with moderate voters, whom he's already largely alienated.
Yet a McConnell vote against the former president would also enrage many of the 74 million voters who backed Trump in November, a record for a GOP presidential candidate. That could expose Republican senators seeking reelection in 2022 to primaries from conservatives seeking revenge, potentially giving the GOP less appealing general election candidates as they try winning Senate control.
It would also no doubt color the legacy of McConnell, a GOP loyalist who turns 79 next Saturday and doesn't face reelection for almost six years. Even critics say McConnell likes to play the long game.
“For McConnell, it's always strategy, it's always about how he can live to fight another day," said Colmon Elridge, chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
McConnell maneuvered through Trump's four years in office like a ship steering through a rocky strait on stormy seas. Battered at times by vindictive presidential tweets, McConnell made a habit of saying nothing about many of Trump's outrageous comments. He ended up steering the Senate to victories like the 2017 tax cuts and the confirmations of three Supreme Court justices and over 200 other federal judges.
Their relationship plummeted after Trump's denial of his Nov. 3 defeat and relentless efforts to reverse the voters' verdict with his baseless insistence that Democrats fraudulently stole the election.
It withered completely last month, after Republicans lost Senate control with two Georgia runoff defeats they blamed on Trump, and the savage Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters. The day of that riot, McConnell railed against “thugs, mobs, or threats” and described the attack as “this failed insurrection.”
A week later, the Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump for inciting insurrection. Six days after that, McConnell said, “The mob was fed lies” and added, “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people."
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.