Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began the week with what by all means was a win for Democrats when he conceded that he would have no choice but to conduct a Senate trial if the House voted to impeach Donald Trump. Of course, the preface to that statement was equally noteworthy: “How long you’re on it is a whole different matter,” he said of a Senate trial.
McConnell’s “no choice” assertion is a basic admission that Trump’s conduct is so bad on its face that he believes it’s politically impossible to entirely ignore it if Democrats muster the votes to impeach. The truth is, McConnell has no reverence for what is constitutionally required of him or the Senate, as is evidenced by his refusal to even hold confirmation hearings for Obama Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland. McConnell is driven solely by political viability and possibility, and he obviously sees at least some pro forma semblance of a Senate trial as an unavoidable necessity at this point.
To date, McConnell has called the summary of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “laughable,” but he has remained tight-lipped since the full whistleblower complaint became public, other than to say that the Senate would be forced to take up a House impeachment of Trump. The self-styled grim reaper also has a newfound interest in legislation, specifically pressing House Democrats to pass Trump’s NAFTA replacement trade deal, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But that’s just a distraction McConnell is hoping will turn attention away from the scandal now enveloping not just Trump and his White House, but also the State Department and Department of Justice too.
But overall, McConnell’s cautious approach is something to behold. Remember that he came out against Garland hearings within hours of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. In other words, McConnell, along with many GOP senators, is watching Democrats and watching the impeachment polling and waiting to determine the best course of action for trying to preserve his Senate majority in 2020.
What that means is that the ball is in the Democrats’ court. To the extent that they manage to both obtain damning evidence about Trump and his coterie of crooks and ingrain that impeachable misconduct in the public consciousness, McConnell will be left playing defense. The initial polls are encouraging. If they continue to rise and harden into solid majority support for Trump’s impeachment, McConnell will be left weighing whether he needs to actually conduct more than just a perfunctory Senate hearing so Republicans can say that they checked the box. Of course, there’s always the possibility that public support for impeachment will grow so much that McConnell will be left to lobby Trump privately for a resignation rather than put his caucus through a very tough impeachment vote that will surely divide GOP voters. But that’s definitely a best-case dream scenario for Democrats. Also, it’s almost impossible to imagine Trump resigning in the same way that President Richard Nixon did in the Watergate era. Trump has no shame and has every reason in the world to cling to his presidency at all costs, because once he’s on the other side of it, he could easily face prosecution for a panoply of crimes.
In any case, keep an eye on Moscow Mitch. He’s treading pretty carefully at the moment. He’ll likely only come out of hibernation if he actually senses a strategic advantage for Republicans, or perhaps a strategic necessity. But his relative absence from the impeachment conversation is a sign that Democrats continue to be on very solid ground.