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Why Mitch McConnell Could Be Key in the Trump Impeachment Battle

7 minute read

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed the slightest of distances between himself and President Donald Trump this week on his handling of Ukrainian aid. But the White House has no real reason to worry yet.

Any shift, however small, could have dire consequences for a White House that, as of this week, formally faces a very real threat of impeachment. Democrats are incensed over and even a few Republicans are unhappy about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s President, during which Trump requested that its government investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a potential Trump rival for the White House in 2020. (There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine.) Left in the balance? Almost $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine.

A U.S. whistleblower was so concerned with Trump requesting a foreign government’s assistance that would benefit the President politically, that he or she submitted a formal complaint, setting off a fast-moving impeachment wildfire at the Capitol. That confidential complaint made its way to Congress late Wednesday at McConnell’s urging and was the topic of Thursday morning’s open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. The three-hour session did only added to the belief in Washington that impeachment would dominate what remains of this Congress and into 2021.

But don’t look for McConnell himself to join the sprint, Republicans inside and without his orbit said, and said the canny Majority Leader has a knack for leveraging any event to maximum political gain.

“McConnell is going to take this very slowly and let House Democrats dominate the news in their rush to impeach the President, while he lets it shake out among his members,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who worked in the House during the last impeachment trial. Bonjean’s boss at the time? Rep. Michael Castle, a GOP lawmaker who voted against one of the impeachment articles facing Bill Clinton in 1999.

“Democrats in the House are really going to drive the train,” Bonjean said. But they also may be walking into a trap, he added.

“(McConnell) needs to figure out what committees may want to do hearings on what. For instance, they may want to look into the Bidens,” he said. “Joe Biden’s name gets trampled under this machine.”

Just as hearings into Hillary Clinton’s handling of a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, and her handling of State Department emails produced no stunning revelations or criminal charges, both dogged her campaign. And, in that, McConnell may find utility to entertaining the impeachment asteroid that seems inevitable to wind up on his side of the Capitol.

It has already been quite the stunning week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made official Democrats’ drive to remove Trump from power on Tuesday. She may be within striking distance of having enough support to make impeachment a sure thing, even though lawmakers are far from even sketching possible articles of impeachment, which are similar to an indictment. If those find a majority in the House, then they’d be referred to the Senate, where Trump would, in effect, be put on trial.

For a conviction, Democrats would require two-thirds of the McConnell-led Senate to go along with charges that the President abused his office’s muscle in asking Ukraine to look into a potential probe into Biden.

Success for Democrats seems highly unlikely. Republicans have 53 seats in the Senate and Vice President Mike Pence can break a tie. That means, for Democrats to prove successful, they’d have to persuade 20 GOP lawmakers to defect and support removing Trump from office. Trump, it is worth remembering, has an 85% job approval rating among Republicans in the most recent Quinnipiac University Poll. At this point, bucking a popular President from your own party seems like a surefire way to draw a primary challenger.

Still, the impeachment whiff once again elevates McConnell’s power, and there was a visible frustration on his part this week. McConnell is a student of the Senate and a defender of legislative powers. That Trump unilaterally held up aid to Ukraine that Congress had approved annoyed McConnell greatly. That he couldn’t get answers from the Pentagon and State Department made him even grumpier.

In a rare moment, McConnell even told reporters of his pique on Tuesday, shortly after Pelosi set in motion impeachment proceedings in her wing of the Capitol.

“I was not given an explanation” for the delay in aid to Ukraine, McConnell told reporters at his weekly news conference. “Fortunately, it finally happened, and I’m glad about that.”

At the same time, McConnell also allowed his caucus to back a resolution written by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer calling for the full whistleblower complaint to be released to Congress. McConnell signed off fast-tracking that resolution, which carried the day with unanimous support.

A McConnell aide said the decision to go full-speed-ahead with the disclosure resolution aligns with the office’s belief that obtaining that full document will help the Senate Intelligence Committee conduct its bipartisan oversight of the Administration. Not one Republican was ready to publicly align with the White House’s refusal to quash the complaint and block its release to Congress. While foreign policy is largely the purview of the executive branch, spending taxpayers’ dollars is a legislative power, and McConnell was still smarting about the aid delay.

McConnell observers predict he would find a way to derail impeachment and protect Trump.

“I don’t think McConnell is concerned about this. You’d have to see a stampede of nervous Senate Republicans and right now all you have is Romney being Romney,” says Matt Mackowiak, an Austin, Texas,-based Republican strategist. (Sen. Mitt Romney is so far the lone Republican critic in public.) “The Senate will be the backstop here if the House goes forward.”

At the moment, McConnell is refusing to muse about what that backstop would look like.

“What we have here is an allegation, related to Ukrainian aid, by a whistle blower. That’s about all we know now,” McConnell said told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m not going to address all of these various hypotheticals that have been aired out about what may or may not happen in the House.”

And on Thursday, after the whistleblower’s complaint had been released, he ignored reporters at the Capitol who sought his reaction.

At the same time, McConnell always has a way out. While he is bound to consider an impeach referral from the House, he also has in his back pocket a potential motion to dismiss. In 1999, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia tried the gambit during Bill Clinton’s trial in the Senate, only to have it come up 10 short of the required 67 votes. It’s a long-shot, for sure.

“It could be done with very quickly. They don’t need to hear a trial. They don’t need to hear the arguments,” one Republican strategist said. “I don’t see what’s to be gained by letting guys like Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell go to the Senate floor and make the case.”

It sounds far-fetched. But it’s worth keeping in mind McConnell is a master of Senate procedure who in 2016 let the Supreme Court nomination languish for 293 days without a vote. He is no more likely to speed into an impeachment chainsaw.

“This is a presidential election year. And many of these folks are up. McConnell will be a very cool customer as this overheats in the House,” Bonjean said. “McConnell likes to take things slowly and let the air goes out of the tires to see how much oxygen is truly left.”

Correction, Sept. 26:

The original version of this story misstated which group gave Trump the most recent job approval rating in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. It is 85% of Republicans, not all voters.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com