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If you were having flashbacks to a school playground yesterday with echoes of “Psych!” ringing in your ears, there was a good chance you were watching Congress impeach President Donald Trump.
First came House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who for a fleeting moment seemed to be reconsidering his long defense of Trump. “The President bears responsibility for [last] Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” the top Republican in the House said.
“The President’s immediate action also deserves congressional action,” McCarthy continued, seeming to tee-up a potential defection. Washington held its breath that perhaps McCarthy was about to throw away the script he’d stuck to for years. “Which is why I think a fact-finding commission and a censure resolution would be prudent,” McCarthy concluded.
Thud. So much for that.
Across Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to be laying his own groundwork for a game of Gotcha. Like McCarthy, McConnell is privately fuming about Trump’s role in instigating the insurrection last week that besieged the Capitol. McConnell and Trump last spoke on Dec. 15 and have no plans to do so again.
McConnell yesterday circulated an unusually blunt letter to colleagues signaling he wouldn’t be the roadblock to impeachment the way he was this time last year. “I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate,” McConnell wrote, shortly after McCarthy made his floor speech.
The move briefly had people wondering whether Democrats’ push to oust Trump before Inauguration Day might actually work. Then, almost immediately after the House voted to impeach, McConnell revealed he had no plans to start his leg of the impeachment process before Trump leaves office, effectively ending Democrats’ hopes of removing Trump early and giving the President one last week to thrash about in anger with all of the powers of the White House behind him. As much as McConnell is hearing from allies, advisers and donors about how toxic Trump has been to the GOP, he isn’t ready just yet to pull the plug.
And so it seems the Trump era will come to its end — at least for now — the same way it began: with most members of Congress dutifully heeding his whims and excusing his excesses. Even a week after Trump encouraged his supporters to storm Capitol Hill and push lawmakers to overturn the legitimate results of the election Joe Biden won, GOP lawmakers keep finding a way to sidestep Trump’s role. They’re being less aggressive to shield their own views this time around, but they aren’t yet ready to do a full mea culpa. It’s like a marriage that is over but neither party is willing to say it so instead they opt for a separation.
McCarthy has been stewing over Trump’s cheering of the failed insurrection that put members of Congress at mortal risk and cost a police officer his life at the Capitol, but he still fell into the same quandary facing most Republicans. A political animal who has an effortless way of making anyone he is courting feel seen, McCarthy was never going to be much of a roadblock for Trump. After all, McCarthy landed the top job in large part because of Trump. When McCarthy tried for it in 2015, he came up short. In 2018, when House Speaker Paul Ryan decided it was time to exit, McCarthy’s second bid to top the GOP ladder proved successful. If the price was to sort through bags of Starburst candies to weed out the orange- and lemon-flavored snacks for Trump, so be it. (That happened.)
McConnell was never one to suck-up to Trump, but he excused the theatrics. Trump gave McConnell a large berth when it came to legislating and McConnell used the slack to pack the federal courts for a generation. McConnell’s calculations and Trump’s instincts found a way to co-exist, even if they never really fed off each other.
And as much as McConnell finds Trump’s in-your-face ignorance of political norms galling, he’s also not rushing to alienate the Trumpistas in his party. McConnell will be the top Republican in Washington once Trump is safely ensconced at his Florida resort, and he’ll have to find a way to work with the coalition the President leaves behind. That’s why, at least for now, it’s unlikely there will be 17 GOP defections in the upper chamber to convict Trump once Biden takes power.
Trump was a means to an end for both McCarthy and McConnell. They’re about to lead their party in the opposition to Biden’s agenda for at least the next two years of the 117th Congress. They may yet find a way to make a clear break with Trump. Such a schism may ultimately be what history demands and the party needs, but that was beyond what either man’s present politics can sustain.
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