There’s been lots of discussion about what it would take to get to those 17 votes, in particular whether Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will vote to convict and bring others with him. There are almost certainly many more than 17 Republicans who in their hearts believe that Trump is guilty and would like their party to make a clean break with him. But whether they’ll take that position publicly is a very different matter.
Don’t bet on McConnell, or more than a couple of Republicans, coming through in the end. It’s a tricky political question for them, but the weight of their incentives will push them toward acquittal, no matter their personal feelings about Trump and what he has done to their party.
It’s true that there’s an effort to get them to convict. CNN reports that “dozens of influential Republicans around Washington — including former top Trump administration officials — have been quietly lobbying GOP members of Congress to impeach and convict Donald Trump.” One unnamed Republican member of Congress even said, “Mitch said to me he wants Trump gone.”
Which you might have gathered from the speech McConnell gave the day before Joe Biden’s inauguration. “The mob was fed lies,” he said. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
But it’s one thing to offer some harsh words about a specific misdeed and another to actually vote to convict the former president. As McConnell surely understands, while he other Republicans might want to make a clean break from Trump, the problem is that there will be no such thing. Any break from Trump will be painful and ugly.
Think of it this way: What does McConnell have to gain from voting to convict Trump, and what does he have to lose? He really has nothing at all to gain, even if he could gather 16 other Republicans to join him. That wouldn’t make his whole party turn the page and walk proudly into its post-Trump future. It would just touch off an internecine war, one that nobody would win.
Loyalty to Trump is still intense within the GOP. “If you’re wanting to erase Donald Trump from the party, you’re going to get erased,” said Trump advocate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), adding that trying to move forward without Trump would be “a disaster for the Republican Party.”
Graham may be wrong on the second part, but he’s right on the first. If McConnell were to vote to convict and bring others with him, he’d immediately be hit with a tsunami of rage from the right. Talk radio and Fox News would mobilize their audiences to pour down contempt upon a figure that they never much liked or trusted anyway. Enterprising Republican politicians would demand he be removed from leadership.
That’s already happening to Rep. Liz Cheney. In the days since the third-ranking member of the House Republican leadership voted to impeach Trump, she has earned a primary challenge from the right for her reelection. According to Politico, more than 100 House Republicans "have communicated to the leaders of that effort that they would support removing Cheney from leadership on a secret ballot.”
But standing up and saying it was just fine and dandy that Trump spent two months lying to his supporters, culminating with his incitement of a violent attack that could have resulted in the deaths of some of the very people who will be voting on impeachment, is not all that appealing. So Senate Republicans are coalescing around a plan: They can avoid defending what Trump did by finding safe harbor in a procedural objection.
The problem, more and more of them are saying, is that the Constitution doesn’t allow for the impeachment of a president who has left office, and therefore there shouldn’t be any trial at all.
In fact, the Constitution doesn’t say that the president can’t be impeached once he departs. While some legal scholars insist otherwise, the weight of opinion is that his impeachment would be perfectly fine.
But that doesn’t matter; for Republicans it’s an argument of convenience. And it’s one McConnell will eventually join.
When the vote comes, McConnell will deliver a dramatic speech finally revealing his position. He’ll reiterate his criticisms of Trump, for lying about the election and whipping up the crowd.
However, he’ll say, all that’s in the past now. Trump is no longer president. And Democrats are just wasting time trying to score political points when they should be addressing the country’s problems. Therefore, he’ll say with sadness, I feel I have no choice but to vote to acquit.
In so doing, he’ll save himself a lot of grief. The alternative is a gesture that won’t get him what he wants — a truly post-Trump party — but will threaten his own authority and deepen the GOP’s internal divisions. It’s not even a close call.