Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, about to assume the role of ringmaster in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Trump, would be the smartest man in Washington if only he didn’t let everyone know. His current mission is to protect Trump, but that’s true only so long as it doesn’t interfere with his own concerns. His personal priorities, ego enhancement, and desire for job security aren’t hard to spot.
Two well-known McConnell performances provide an indication as to what to expect in the coming weeks. Consider the jettisoning of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland following the death of Antonin Scalia, which still infuriates Democrats, and the seizure of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s microphone during the Senate debate on the nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general. Both involved a display of vanity divorced from any actual legislative achievement. That’s because each outcome was a foregone conclusion.
In the eight months between his nomination and the 2016 election, Garland had no chance of receiving a hearing in the GOP-controlled Senate, never mind a vote. In the hours after Scalia’s death and before Obama had a chance to announce his nominee, McConnell said he would not allow an appointment to the Supreme Court by a lame-duck president and consideration would wait until the next president was elected. McConnell boasted happily that blocking consideration of Garland was "one of my proudest moments.”
Likewise, Sessions was predictably confirmed along party lines and Warren wasn’t going to change that, no matter how long she spoke. McConnell’s calculus in each case — that the GOP base would relish his defying Supreme Court constitutional protocol under Article II and his put-down of a Massachusetts elitist — was probably correct. But he didn’t anticipate that Warren’s reading of a letter from Coretta Scott King would garner 9 million YouTube views, and that “nevertheless, she persisted” would begin a political meme.
The fact is, McConnell can’t help himself. He just has to flex.
The outcome of the Senate impeachment trial, Trump’s acquittal, is also preordained. The real fight will be to generate or suppress material helpful to the 2020 Democratic ticket. In the context of impeachment and heightened public attention, McConnell sees no reason to change his routine. Until now, his exclusive focus on partisan warfare has proved to be a perfect fit with today’s GOP.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has observed McConnell for decades, and decided to give him an opportunity to overreach. With an eye toward November, she is placing Democratic bets on the high road, emphasizing the contrast with Republican lockstep posturing.
Pelosi declined to whip the impeachment vote and publicized that fact by openly instructing members of her caucus to vote their conscience. If her approach gains traction with the public, skittish members of McConnell’s caucus may force the Senate trial to present a more evenhanded appearance. There are signs that the narrative of idealism projected in the House is having an effect.
A recent ABC/Washington Post poll reported that roughly 70 percent of Americans, including 64 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents, believe the Senate should conduct a genuine inquiry, call witnesses, and examine documentary evidence.
Three purple state Republicans have already reacted. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is “disturbed” with McConnell’s “being hand in glove with the defense.” She was followed shortly by Senator Susan Collins of Maine saying she’s “open to witnesses,” followed in turn by a statement from Senator Mitt Romney of Utah saying that he would like to hear from John Bolton.
In short, Democrats are advancing the quaint notion that the purpose of a job in public service is not simply staying in the job. Emerging standard-bearer Elissa Slotkin, who flipped the conservative Michigan Eighth Congressional District in 2018, recently stated that her vote for impeachment was “not based on polling or political calculus” and that she understood voting for impeachment might cost her seat.
Pelosi, playing a weak hand, has nevertheless managed to pull off the equivalent of artillery bracketing, restricting McConnell to a narrow path. If her high-wire act — delaying delivery of the impeachment articles until this week — creates enough pressure for him to accept witnesses, the trial will be more problematic for Republicans and provide a trove of campaign ad footage. On the other hand, if McConnell manages to dominate his caucus and block all new evidence despite the steady drip of ongoing revelations, he’ll have to worry about losing vulnerable members and, potentially, his position as majority leader. For once, his ego enhancement and job security may be at odds.
A recent cover of The New Yorker magazine depicted McConnell, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, and Attorney General William Barr kneeling side by side at Trump’s feet, polishing his shoes. In McConnell’s case, that’s not really accurate. He’s intent on polishing his own.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the state Eissa Slotkin represents.
Andrew Grainger is a retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.