If you’re asking “Can he get away with that?,” the answer is: Of course he can. If you think that he cares how much criticism he gets for it, you don’t know Mitch McConnell. And you don’t know what he knows about how the American public sees the goings-on in Washington.
To clarify, McConnell isn’t saying there definitely won’t be witnesses; he says that after each side makes its opening presentation, the Senate will then decide. But it is clear that if he can get 50 of his Republican colleagues to agree to a trial with no witnesses, that’s exactly what he’ll do.
McConnell has never made any pretense about conducting a fair trial. He openly said last month that he would shape the trial “in total coordination with the White House counsel,” designing it to minimize the damage to Trump and arrive at an acquittal as quickly as possible. Democrats will quite properly complain that it’s a coverup; among other things, the administration prevented key witnesses from testifying in the House, and now it looks as though McConnell will shut down witness testimony in the Senate.
But fairness is not, and has never been, something that concerns McConnell.
There are two reasons. First, he simply doesn’t believe in it as an abstract principle. What matters to him is winning, and whether you win fairly or unfairly is irrelevant. Second, he knows that you can use the power you have unfairly — even unethically — and not pay a political price.
This is something Democrats fail again and again to appreciate. Not only do they tend to have more of a commitment to healthy institutions and norms of fair play than Republicans, they harbor a naive belief that the public will ultimately reward them for that commitment, despite an almost complete lack of evidence to support that belief.
There’s no better example than the controversy over Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, which McConnell regards as one of the proudest moments of his career. President Barack Obama chose Garland, who had been praised in the past by Republicans, in part to demonstrate how bipartisan he could be and to create a contrast with the Republican obstruction he surely knew was on its way. In response, McConnell simply refused to give Garland even a hearing, holding open the seat until it could be filled by a Republican president.
Then, as now, McConnell didn’t care how many finger-wagging op-eds would be aimed his way or how much outrage Democrats would express; he just cared about winning. Conservatives now have a firm majority on the Supreme Court, from which they’re already beginning a scorched-earth campaign against progressive legislation, the ability of government to solve Americans’ problems, and the rights of ordinary people.
McConnell’s key insight is that that, as a general matter, the public neither understands fights about procedure nor particularly cares. At the very least, voters quickly forget about them once they’re over. There is little or no political price to be paid for taking unreasonable positions in a procedural argument and no gain to be had from presenting oneself as the reasonable one. Activists and political junkies may get worked up about procedural unfairness, but their minds were already made up anyway.
To be clear, although this holds in most situations, there may be some tail-end cases where one party is acting so outrageously that they receive some genuine backlash that affects their political future. It’s possible that Trump’s impeachment could be such a case. That’s the theory, for instance, behind ads being aired by the anti-Trump group Republicans For the Rule of Law, which urge vulnerable GOP senators to support witnesses being allowed in the trial.
Those Republicans — such as Cory Gardner (Colo.) or Susan Collins (Maine) — may be feeling some pressure to themselves look reasonable by calling for witness testimony. But my guess is that, privately, McConnell is telling them they won’t help themselves that way. What matters is how much damage impeachment does to Trump: The worse it is for him, the worse it will be for every other elected Republican, and the more the damage to him can be minimized, the better it will be for them.
McConnell is one of the shrewdest politicians to ever slither his way through the halls of Congress, but his calculations often come down to something that simple. He knows you shouldn’t give the public too much credit for its level of attentiveness to daily developments in Washington, or its ability to discern the nuances of political conflicts. He knows that what matters is whether you win, not whether winning might make you look bad.
McConnell can’t be shamed, and he doesn’t fear being criticized. He just has to convince the rest of his party to feel the same way.