Democrats owe a debt to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Yes, you read that right.

Recall that when Democrats were debating whether to impeach President Trump last year, those opposed to the move argued there was no chance that Senate Republicans would remove him from office, committed as they are to marching off any cliff toward which the president directs them.

The fear was that Trump would inevitably tout acquittal in the Senate as vindication. He’d say that impeachment was, to use a word invoked over and over by his hapless lawyer Pat Cipollone on the Senate floor (because he had little of substance to say), “ridiculous.”

President Trump's impeachment defense could create a dangerous precedent, says constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. (The Washington Post)

But #MidnightMitch, as the Senate leader was labeled by his Twitter critics, rode to the rescue. By working with Trump to rig the trial by admitting as little evidence as possible, McConnell robbed the proceeding of any legitimacy as a fair adjudication of Trump’s behavior.

Instead of being able to claim that Trump was “cleared” by a searching and serious process, Republican senators will now be on the defensive for their complicity in the Trump coverup.

It gets worse. Thanks to assertions by Trump’s lawyers that he did absolutely nothing wrong, an acquittal vote, as The Post editorialized, “would confirm to Mr. Trump that he is free to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election and to withhold congressionally appropriated aid to induce such interference.”

Is that the position that Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Martha McSally (Ariz.), among others, want to embrace as they run for reelection this fall? Good luck with that.

McConnell’s initial rules were so outrageous that even some Republicans, among them Collins and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, gagged and forced their leader to relent just a bit. But by making his opening proposal so absurd, McConnell could be cast as giving ground to “moderates” without giving up very much.

The Republican leader initially wanted to cram 24 hours of opening arguments into two days for each side — thus “#MidnightMitch,” since this would force much of the debate into the dead of night — and to require a formal vote before admitting evidence already gathered by the House. After the outcry, McConnell went from two days to three, and allowed in House evidence unless there is an objection.

But this did not protect his Republican colleagues from having to walk the plank and vote down one amendment after another proposed by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to admit evidence and call witnesses at the beginning of the trial rather than later. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead impeachment manager who burnished his image as a Democratic star with clear and quietly passionate interventions, made the fundamental point: Why didn’t the senators want to question witnesses at the outset rather than later? Why indeed?

How scared are Republicans of the facts, and of Trump’s vindictiveness? A little before 2 a.m. Wednesday, they voted down an amendment offered by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that would have allowed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the presiding officer — who is, to say the least, no enemy of the Republican Party — to decide on what evidence to admit and what witnesses to call, with the Senate having the opportunity to override him.

As Van Hollen argued, in rejecting his proposal to sidestep partisan divisions, McConnell’s majority “abandoned all pretense of impartiality.”

There’s talk that a handful of Republicans, realizing how their party is doing all it can to discredit itself, may agree to call witnesses later. But by requiring his followers to reject any sort of bipartisan agreement on the rules, McConnell has sent an indelible message.

Republicans don’t want to “try” the case, as the Constitution says the Senate should. They don’t want to deal with the mountains of evidence the impeachment managers previewed effectively during the procedural debate and began to detail Wednesday. They just want to make Trump happy by making impeachment go away as quickly as possible.

No Democrat has been kinder in his comments about Senate Republicans over the years than former vice president Joe Biden. So when he was asked about the GOP’s behavior on impeachment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday, Biden offered his verdict with quiet sadness. “I think it’s one of the things they’re going to regret,” he said, “when their grandchildren read in history books what they did.”

And many of them might regret it sooner than that, when voters cast their ballots in November.

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