Finally, McConnell looked up at the Senate’s presiding officer, growing slightly emotional. “You’ve been a real friend, you’ve been a trusted partner, and it’s been an honor to serve with you,” McConnell told Joe Biden, then serving out his final weeks as vice president, on Dec. 7, 2016. “We’re all going to miss you.”
Now, McConnell has remained conspicuously quiet as three Senate committee chairmen have begun two separate probes into his onetime “trusted partner.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee has asked the State Department for records related to Biden’s work on policy toward Ukraine as vice president, and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Finance Committee have requested records from the Treasury Department regarding any reports of “suspicious activity” related to business dealings by Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son who served on the board of a Ukraine energy company while his father was in office.
In so doing, Senate Republicans have thrown their support behind President Trump’s ruthless approach to the 2020 elections and his defiant defense against the House impeachment inquiry, by trying to muddy the waters and suggest that one of his leading Democratic rivals engaged in some loosely defined corruption.
Democrats have accused Republicans of rank hypocrisy given the laudatory comments they made about Biden during his years in the Senate and as vice president, particularly Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Now the Judiciary Committee chairman, Graham’s public adoration of Biden included a tearful 2015 HuffPost interview recounting how he “is as good a man as God ever created.”
Graham continues to say he respects Biden but that he cannot give him “a pass” over allegations his son financially benefited from his father’s actions as vice president regarding Ukraine, something that has driven a wedge between the former friends.
“Lindsey is about to go down in a way that I think he’s going to regret his whole life,” Joe Biden told CNN.
But McConnell’s handling of Trump’s focus on the Bidens will prove more crucial than whatever Graham, who faces reelection in 2020, cooks up in his committee. In an impeachment trial, McConnell does not have the same sort of procedural power that he regularly wields, but he holds more clout than any Senate leader in a generation and can make his views known in a way that will probably determine outcomes on which witnesses to call and when to end the proceedings.
Some rank-and-file Republicans have begun suggesting that they would call one or both of the Bidens during an impeachment trial, something that would require only 51 votes in a Senate in which McConnell has 53 members in his GOP caucus.
McConnell would not address what type of witnesses he would support calling, when asked whether he backed calling people who were not asked to testify by House Democrats, a vague but clear reference to Hunter Biden.
“It’s way too early to scope out or announce how we might handle impeachment when it gets to the Senate. We’re all having what-if discussions, but I think just laying out various hypotheticals now is not helpful,” McConnell told reporters just before Thanksgiving. “The House is going to do what the House is going to do.”
As the presidential campaign took off in the summer, Biden’s work with McConnell and other Republicans seemed to be an Achilles’ heel for the former vice president, part of his seemingly out-of-step belief that if Trump is defeated, the days of bipartisanship could return to Washington.
Now, many congressional Republicans are playing to Trump’s burn-it-all-down ethos to savage Biden, who still talks about finding common ground if he can win the presidency. These Republicans have questioned Biden’s work in pushing for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor as his son served on the board of an energy company in the country, Burisma, despite the fact that U.S. and European leaders all supported his actions as part of an effort to oust corrupt government officials.
Yet Graham and other Republicans only recently took interest in Hunter Biden’s position with Burisma, even though it was announced in 2014 and dissected in several mainstream media outlets over the next two years.
Biden supporters cannot even fathom the idea that McConnell actually believes the allegations coming from Trump and his allies. Ted Kaufman, the former top Biden aide who replaced him in the Senate in 2009, returned to Washington that day in December 2016 to honor Biden.
Kaufman saw McConnell’s speech as a throwback to less partisan times, a genuine bond between two leaders. “That is a great example of the Senate of 40 years ago,” said Kaufman.
That speech capped off an eight-year run in which Biden and McConnell served as dealmaking emissaries between the Obama White House and a congressional Republican leadership team that loathed Barack Obama.
Their first big deal together came toward the end of 2010, after House Republicans routed Democrats in the midterm elections and won the majority. Biden and McConnell hatched an agreement to extend Bush-era tax cuts another two years until after the 2012 elections. A couple months later, the GOP leader hosted Biden at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center.
“You want to see whether a Republican and Democrat really like each other,’’ Biden said. “Well, I’m here to tell you we do.’’
By the summer of 2011, as a partisan standoff sent the U.S. Treasury hurtling toward a default on the federal debt, Biden and McConnell stepped in to broker a complicated, temporary peace, and by the end of 2012 — as all these budget deals were about to expire creating a “fiscal cliff” — McConnell shouted at White House aides for a serious negotiating partner.
“There is a reason ‘Get Joe on the phone’ is shorthand for ‘time to get serious’ in my office,” McConnell recalled in 2016.
That week began with McConnell renaming a portion of an extensive medical research bill after Biden’s son Beau, who died in May 2015 of brain cancer. McConnell was the only Senate Republican to travel to Wilmington, Del., for Beau Biden’s funeral.
After McConnell hailed Biden three years ago, five Senate Republicans joined a long line of Democrats to praise him, and several more inserted tributes for the record. “His word is his bond,” Graham wrote of Biden.
As he closed out his remarks, McConnell told the story about Biden in Louisville talking about how they really were good friends. “It was true then, and it is true today,” McConnell said three years ago.
It remains to be seen whether that is true two months from now.