McConnell knew that if he voted on Saturday to convict Donald Trump, he would have been lionized, briefly, by many of his detractors, who are legion. Because he is the most consequential conservative since Ronald Reagan, his vote would have begun a process to which he is committed, that of making Trump inconsequential. But the time is not quite ripe. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, the Senate minority leader knows that to every thing there is a season.
McConnell’s argument against impeaching a former president is: Impeachment is “a narrow tool for a narrow purpose” — “to protect the country from government officers.” Hence Trump “is constitutionally not eligible for conviction,” and convicting him might imply a Senate power, with “no limiting principle,” to “convict and disqualify [from holding public office] any private citizen.”
With characteristic parsimony regarding information about his feelings, McConnell said only that were Trump still in office, he, McConnell, “would have carefully considered” arguments for conviction. McConnell’s preceding words, however, indicate such a vote to convict: Trump fed his supporters “wild falsehoods” making him “practically and morally responsible” for Jan. 6, which was “a foreseeable consequence” of “false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole” and a “manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe,” all “orchestrated” by Trump, who then “feign[ed]” surprise about his mob’s behavior, as he “watched television happily.”
McConnell knows that Trump’s grip on the Republican base — its activist core, which is disproportionately important in candidate-selection primaries — remains unshaken. But not unshakable. Trump might soon have a bruising rendezvous with the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. (While explaining his opposition to the Senate’s convicting Trump, McConnell pointedly noted that “impeachment was never meant to be the final forum for American justice,” and that “we have a criminal justice system” and “we have civil litigation.”) Trump’s potential problems, legal and financial, might shrink his stature in the eyes of his still-mesmerized supporters. McConnell knows, however, that the heavy lifting involved in shrinking Trump’s influence must be done by politics.
He has his eyes on the prize: 2022, perhaps the most crucial nonpresidential election year in U.S. history. It might determine whether the Republican Party can be a plausible participant in the healthy oscillations of a temperate two-party system.
In Republican Senate primaries for open seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama and perhaps elsewhere, and against Senate incumbents, too — and in the challenge to Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), third-ranking in the Republican House leadership, who voted to impeach — Trump probably will endorse acolytes. They will mimic his sulfuric rhetoric and, if nominated, many will lose in November.
McConnell remembers, if few others do, the names of Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell (“I dabbled into witchcraft,” but “I’m not a witch”), Missouri’s Todd Akin (“legitimate rape” does not cause pregnancy), Indiana’s Richard Mourdock (a woman made pregnant by her rapist is carrying a “gift from God”), Nevada’s Sharron Angle (“Second Amendment remedies” might cure Congress’s shortcomings) and others who won and then squandered Republican Senate nominations in 2010 and 2012. This was before McConnell began wielding the national party’s resources in defense of its interests in state parties’ decisions.
A McConnell vote to convict Trump on Saturday would have made it easier for the ex-president’s minions to cast the coming 2022 intraparty contests as binary Trump-vs.-McConnell choices. No one’s detestation of Trump matches the breadth and depth of McConnell’s, which includes a professional’s disdain for a dilettante. Trump enthusiasts are as hostile to McConnell as progressives are. He is equally impervious to the disapproval of both factions.
The Senate chaplain’s prayer that opened the impeachment trial’s first day included a familiar stanza from James Russell Lowell’s 1845 poem written during heated national debates about slavery and the looming war with Mexico: “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.” A political “moment” can, however, be a protracted process, as McConnell, who titled his 2016 memoir “The Long Game,” understands.