The most striking position came from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said Wednesday that he will consider convicting Trump on inciting the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — a remarkable break between the two men who worked in lockstep for four years, even as the majority leader continually deflected questions about Trump’s untoward conduct and rhetoric.
It was also a dramatic shift from his position during Trump’s first impeachment a year ago, when he publicly stressed that he was “not an impartial juror” and privately worked in concert with White House officials to map out the president’s eventual acquittal in the Senate.
“While the press has been full of speculation, I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate,” McConnell said in a message to his colleagues, an excerpt of which was released by his office.
McConnell also pressed pause on an impeachment trial that would occur before Trump leaves the White House on Jan. 20, slowing the rapid momentum and furor that snowballed in Congress as the scale and potential catastrophe of the Jan. 6 siege continued to sharpen.
Even with McConnell’s position giving senators cover on a conviction, multiple senior GOP officials said it was too early to determine whether a critical mass of Senate Republicans would vote to punish Trump for his role in inciting a violent mob of his supporters to storm and rampage the Capitol, leaving five people dead.
To convict Trump, 17 of the 50 Republicans in the new Senate would have to join the chamber’s 50 Democrats to meet the necessary two-thirds threshold. While a few GOP senators are now considered likely to oppose Trump, others across the spectrum of the party would face enormous pressure to abandon their years-long support of him and publicly rebuke him. Twenty GOP-held seats are on the ballot in 2022.
Most Republican senators have not expressed a public position on impeachment, leaving colleagues and others to try to parse their words for any hint of how they might feel. Some have directly criticized Trump for his role in inciting the riot, including Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who said Trump “bears responsibility” for the mayhem, and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who made similar comments.
If two-thirds of the Senate convicted Trump, a second vote would determine whether he would be barred from ever seeking federal office again. A simple majority would determine that outcome.
Given the parameters that guide Senate impeachment proceedings of a president, McConnell said Wednesday that Trump had “simply no chance” of a “fair or serious trial” before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in. His office informed aides to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) earlier Wednesday that he would not agree to immediately reconvene the Senate this week, according to a person familiar with the matter, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal GOP dynamics, despite pressure from Schumer to invoke rarely used emergency powers that allow the two Senate leaders to unilaterally reconvene.
“Even if the Senate process were to begin this week and move promptly, no final verdict would be reached until after President Trump had left office,” McConnell said in a statement after the House impeached Trump on a bipartisan, 232-to-197 vote. “This is not a decision I am making; it is a fact.”
McConnell is poised to remain majority leader until at least Jan. 22, when election results from the two Senate runoff races in Georgia will be certified and Democratic Sens.-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will be eligible to be sworn in. McConnell and Schumer could jointly work out the rules that would govern Trump’s second impeachment trial, although once Democrats formally take the majority, Schumer and his ranks could formalize a rules package on a party-line vote.
It’s also unclear who would preside during a Senate impeachment trial of a former president. A Supreme Court spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday about whether Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been in contact with Senate leaders about any Senate proceedings, and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), in her role as president of the Senate, could conceivably preside.
With no apparent effort on McConnell’s part as of now to actively persuade or dissuade his colleagues on an impeachment vote, it was unclear how much political cover his position would provide — particularly as various Republican senators navigate their own personal home-state political dynamics as they weigh a Trump conviction.
For nearly 24 hours, the outgoing majority leader had remained quiet to other GOP senators — even those seen as some of his closest lieutenants — on reports that he was pleased with the House’s move to rapidly impeach Trump and was leaning in favor of convicting him, according to Republican officials.
That silence, people familiar with the matter said, frustrated some Senate Republicans who were seeking guidance or at least some insight into the majority leader’s thinking on what would be an unprecedented second impeachment trial of a U.S. president.
While other increasingly vocal critics of the president emphasized that they, too, were open to conviction, allies of Trump within the Senate Republican Conference continued to line up in his defense — deepening a rift among GOP senators that began as Trump falsely amplified baseless claims about widespread voter fraud in the presidential election that he lost.
Trump will almost certainly face a bigger rebuke than just the one Senate Republican — Mitt Romney of Utah — who voted to convict him last February. But the views of other GOP senators who flocked to Trump’s defense Wednesday underscored just how difficult it appeared to be as of now for 17 Republicans to ultimately decide to find him guilty of inciting an insurrection.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Wednesday after the House impeachment vote that for the past week, “it’s been obvious that the President was derelict in his duty to defend the Constitution and uphold the rule of law.”
“Everything that we’re dealing with here — the riot, the loss of life, the impeachment, and now the fact that the U.S. Capitol has been turned into a barracks for federal troops for the first time since the Civil War — is the result of a particular lie,” Sasse said.
He added that while he would not weigh in on the merits of impeachment because he is a juror, “President Trump has consistently lied by claiming that he ‘won the election by a landslide,’ and by promoting fanciful conspiracy theories about dozens of topics and people connected to the Nov. 3 election.”
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who has emerged as one of the president’s fiercest critics since Trump lost reelection to Biden in November, said he continues to believe the outgoing president should immediately resign and, like McConnell, made clear he was also weighing a conviction.
“Whether or not the Senate has the constitutional authority to hold an impeachment trial for a president that is no longer in office is debatable,” said Toomey, who plans to retire after his term. “Should the Senate conduct a trial, I will again fulfill my responsibility to consider arguments from both the House managers and President Trump’s lawyers.”
But a faction of the GOP conference continued to line up behind Trump, contending that a fraught impeachment fight would only be divisive and risk antagonizing supporters of the president who will still retain backing from a significant part of the party’s base.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who had remained an ardent Trump ally despite the turbulence of last week, reiterated that he opposes impeachment and said in a veiled reference to McConnell that “as to Senate leadership, I fear they are making the problem worse, not better.”
“To my Republican colleagues who legitimize this process, you are doing great damage not only to the country, the future of the presidency, but also to the party,” Graham said. “The millions who have supported President Trump and his agenda should not be demonized because of the despicable actions of a seditious mob.”
In private, some GOP senators questioned Democrats’ level of commitment in impeaching Trump, pointing to comments made by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, that suggested the House could simply hold off sending the article of impeachment to the Senate to delay a trial and free up floor time for members of Biden’s Cabinet to be confirmed.
In McConnell’s message to senators Wednesday, obtained by The Washington Post, he acknowledged that he did not know when the House will transmit the articles to the Senate, though McConnell added that it could be shortly after it is adopted.
Still, House Democrats want the Senate to act “as soon as possible,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said, signaling that the impeachment article was likely to be transmitted without delay. In a statement, Schumer promised that Trump will get a “fair trial” but added that Trump’s conduct “cannot and must not be tolerated, excused, or go unpunished.”
Some Senate Republicans were also concerned that House Democrats were setting a precedent for a rushed impeachment of future presidents, according to people familiar with the conversations.
“The House impeachment process seeks to legitimize a snap impeachment totally void of due process,” Graham said. “No hearings. No witnesses. It is a rushed process that, over time, will become a threat to future presidents.”
Erica Werner and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.