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What’s Mitch McConnell’s endgame in shaping the Senate impeachment trial to benefit Trump?

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to work with President Trump’s lawyers on impeachment and expects the Senate won't vote to oust the president. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will run the Senate impeachment trial “in total coordination” with the White House, which means he’ll probably frame it in a way that benefits President Trump. When asked why, he says the answer is obvious: because everyone knows Trump’s going to be acquitted anyway by the Republican-controlled Senate, so why bother?

“We all know how this is going to end,” McConnell said on “Fox and Friends” last week.

The limited history of Senate impeachment trials — there has been only one in the modern era — doesn’t give us much insight into whether this is normal.

So what’s McConnell’s endgame in setting the expectations that this trial will be set up for Trump? As we wait to see whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will hand over the articles of impeachment so that a Senate trial can start, here are a few non-mutually exclusive theories.

He doesn’t want to risk anything that could backfire on Trump

Opening up the trial to witnesses is a can of worms for McConnell. Senate Democrats — and 71 percent of Americans, including nearly two in three Republicans — want to hear from Trump’s top aides in a Senate trial. Those aides include such people as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. What might these people know about Trump’s intentions when he held up Ukraine’s military aid?

On the other side, Trump wants people such as former vice president Joe Biden and his family or the anonymous whistleblower to testify.

It’s up to the senators to decide what rules will frame the trial, including whether they will have witnesses. They’ll decide by a majority vote. McConnell is adept at controlling outcomes in the Senate, but why risk having a situation where the White House lawyers grill Biden and come across looking uber-political, while people who could provide damaging testimony about Trump testify for Democrats?

It’s easier to close this off to any witnesses.

While McConnell isn’t explicitly ruling out witnesses, he is saying he plans to hold the vote for witnesses in the middle of the trial, after opening arguments by both sides and when senators have a chance to ask questions, rather than at the beginning. The Washington Post has reported that he hopes at that point Republican senators will want the whole thing to be over and just move to vote on whether to acquit or convict Trump, without introducing any new evidence.

McConnell points out that’s how the process worked with Clinton’s trial. “What was good enough for President Clinton is good enough for President Trump,” he said on “Fox and Friends” on Monday. (What McConnell doesn’t say is that the Clinton trial was seen as a bipartisan effort of cooperation among the Senate Republican and Democratic leaders to make it as fair as possible.)

What we know and don't know about how Trump's Senate trial might work

The Senate trial is an inherently political process

If the framers wanted a truly impartial impeachment trial, they would have handed it over to the judicial system. Instead, they left it with Congress to decide a president’s fate. We know senators are required to take an oath of impartiality when they start the trial, but there’s nothing in the rules the Senate passed in the 1980s that I’ve seen that necessitates senators place impartiality above all else when framing the trial.

To that effect: During the Clinton impeachment trial, current Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was a House member running for Senate. He broadcast that he would vote to acquit. “So a vote for Charles E. Schumer is a vote not to impeach the president?” NBC asked him. “Based on the present evidence, that is correct," Schumer said. CNN has reported similar comments from that time by Schumer.

To some, that sounds similar to the “I’m not an impartial juror” line that McConnell says today to explain his defense of Trump. In other words, both sides have acted to protect their president during impeachment.

“The bottom line is this is not a jury trial," said a GOP Senate aide. “It’s a political event.”

Of course, comparing these two impeachments is not is apples to apples. There was a years-long investigation into Clinton before impeachment, by a separate special counsel. The House spent only a couple of months investigating Trump’s alleged wrongdoing.

McConnell didn’t want to hold this trial in the first place

McConnell has stuck by Trump since Trump got elected, and the senator is not about to abandon the president now. McConnell believes that the case House Democrats are handing him is too weak to remove a duly elected president from office. Not a single House Republican voted to impeach Trump on either of the counts Democrats passed: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

McConnell also believes that in asking Bolton and Mulvaney to testify, he’ll be doing Democrats’ investigatory work for them. (Democrats decided to impeach Trump before the new year rather than wait weeks or months for court cases to force others to abide by congressional subpoenas and testify.) Pursuing the case against Trump is counterintuitive to everything McConnell stands for as a Republican and Trump ally.

He doesn’t think Trump will be convicted, anyway

“Let’s quit the charade,” McConnell said on “Fox & Friends.” “This is a political exercise.” McConnell’s view is a cynical one, but he may be right. For Trump to be the first impeached president to also be convicted by the Senate and thus removed from office, 67 senators need to agree. That’s all 47 Democratic senators plus 20 of the 53 Republicans. So far, a Washington Post analysis finds 14 Republican senators who have expressed concerns about Trump’s actions, but none who says they agree with his impeachment, much less that he should be removed from office.

A GOP aide said it’s more likely some Democrats vote to acquit Trump (like maybe Alabama’s Doug Jones or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III) than Republicans vote to convict him.

If that’s true, McConnell has plenty of room to shape this trial in Trump’s favor without much blowback from his own party.