Could the Senate Convict Donald Trump? Here's What Mitch McConnell Worries About

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Mitch McConnell has reason to worry—and that means Donald Trump does, too.

To convict President Trump of an impeachable offense, the Democrats have to muster a two-thirds vote in the Senate: at least 20 Republican senators (and probably more like 22 because of expected Democratic defections) would have to break ranks. That math sounds unforgiving, and it's true that the road to 67 votes is a narrow and bumpy one. But the Senate majority leader and the White House fear that if more than a couple of GOP senators say they intend to vote against Trump, there will be something of a traffic jam as Republican senators turn against the president.

For starters, it's no secret that some senators can't stand Trump. Former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, famously a "never Trumper," said in September that if it were a private vote, 35 senators would vote to oust the president. Utah Senator Mitt Romney stands out among this group—and for Trump the feeling of disdain is distinctly mutual, never mind that during his transition the then-president-elect actually interviewed the former GOP standard bearer for Secretary of State. Romney recently called Trump's interactions with Ukraine's president "appalling." Trump called Romney "a pompous ass" on Twitter. Though Romney has said he has an open mind and will see where the facts take him, Trump vote-counters already assume his vote is lost.

Donald Trump Mitch McConnell Impeachment Senate
Will the Senate convict Donald Trump (if the House impeaches him)? Mitch McConnell is worried BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

The White House—and McConnell—have their eyes on two senators in particular: Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. They are no fans of the president. Murkowski famously voted against the bill repealing Obamacare in 2017, thus helping save it and dealing Trump a bitter defeat. Collins, who is up for reelection in what is expected to be a close race next year, has repeatedly criticized Trump. She said he "made a big mistake" asking Beijing to investigate Hunter Biden's business dealings there and called for the president to retract a tweet in which he compared the House impeachment investigation to a "lynching."

McConnell is worried their votes are not safe. In fact, in his role as Trump's sherpa—the calm hand who knows better than anyone how to count his caucus' votes—McConnell counseled the president to call Murkowski and pledge to work with her on an ambitious energy bill that the Alaska senator has been pushing for three years. He also told Trump to knock off the juvenile name-calling of Mitt Romney, which other senators found distasteful.

"[McConnell] has stressed to the president that he thinks he can keep the caucus together, but Trump needs to help," says a Senate source familiar with McConnell's thinking. "He can't just demand loyalty and expect to give nothing back. That's not how this is going to work."

The passionate partisanship that has kept Republicans aligned with Trump until now might work against the president and McConnell. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato notes that "the nationalization of politics—how people feel about the president—is bleeding down the ballot to an extreme degree." In 2016, every state with a Senate race voted for the same party for senator and president—the first time that's happened since 1912, when the era of popular voting for the Senate began. And as Sabato says, "impeachment may be the ultimate nationalizing event" for Senate members.

To understand the implications, consider the GOP senators up for reelection in purple swing states: first-term Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona and Joni Ernst of Iowa. The first two are in races viewed as toss-ups; in Colorado Trump is deeply underwater and in Arizona only slightly less so. If the nationalization thesis holds, it could be risky for Gardner and McSally to vote to acquit an increasingly unpopular president.

Impeachment road to 67 cover
Cover illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek. Cover illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek.

Senator Ernst at this point is a slight favorite to be re-elected in Iowa, but the race will be tricky. Trump's trade war with China has hurt the state's agricultural sector. Ernst also, associates say, has complained about Trump's boorishness: the hush money payments to a porn star, the Billy Bush "locker room talk" video. She publicly has been supportive of Trump but privately isn't much of a fan.

If she defects, it could prompt some others—who are currently saying all the right things to the White House—to consider it, too. Tom Tillis of North Carolina is in a race considered a toss up. Trump won North Carolina in 2016, but is no lock next year.

This is the scenario the Trump White House dreads, and for good reason. The risk is not, at this point, that enough GOP senators will defect to oust him—at least not, again, based on what's currently known about the Ukraine affair. The risk is that even if he's acquitted, he begins to look politically weak in his own party, becoming a drag on down-ballot candidates.

A Senate trial will be open and reasonably fair. It will not look like the president is being railroaded. It will be presided over by John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the president's defense team will be allowed to cross examine hostile witnesses and call their own to testify. If, given that, several GOP senators still end up voting for removal, Trump potentially is a dead man walking. "He won't just look weaker going into the general election, he will be weaker," says a source close to McConnell. "If you get Joni Ernst and Martha McSalley, military veterans both, voting against you, you've got trouble."

Other GOP lawmakers are making their own calculations, driven by the ambivalence—usually expressed only privately—that many Republicans in both the House and Senate feel about Trump. Unlike the president, most are used to operating in traditional ways. The president's crassness, his chaotic White House, the recent sellout of the Kurdish fighters in Syria, the "lunatic" effort to strong arm the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden, as one senior Senate staffer describes it: all serve to make Republicans distinctly uncomfortable.

There's an ideological factor at play as well. The vast majority of GOP-ers in both House and Senate believe in longtime Republican policies like free trade and fiscal sobriety. The Tea Party elected 138 House members in 2010 largely as a protest against what was then viewed as out-of-control spending in Washington. In the Trump era, free trade is dead and no one ever talks about spending. Republicans on the Hill feel as if they're "trapped" into supporting Trump, says Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican who announced his intention to leave the GOP this summer. Another GOP congressman, unwilling to speak on the record, says a big chunk of the party has been "lobotomized." "There are any number of people up here who feel the same way, they're just not willing to say so publicly," he says.

The reason for that is simple: as politicians, they know how to read polls. And while in several recent polls a slim majority of Americans now believe Trump should be removed from office, his support among Republican voters remains rock solid. In a recent Fox News poll in which 51 percent favored his removal, only 16 percent of Republicans did. Trump's overall approval rating was 86 percent among Republicans.

Apostates within Trump's GOP are not treated kindly. Ask Francis Rooney, a representative from Naples, Fla. Last month he gave a television interview in which he equated Trump's Ukraine scandal with Watergate. "I'm very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate everybody said, 'Oh, it's a witch hunt to get Nixon.' Turns out it wasn't a witch hunt. It was absolutely correct."

The backlash from his district was swift, intense and stoked by a furious White House. Several constituents called his office and said if he wasn't prepared to support the president he should stand down. The reaction stunned Rooney; so much so that the next day, he took the advice and announced that he would not run for re-election next year. The episode, more than anything, showed "that this is not the Republican Party anymore," says political scientist Sabato. "It's the Party of Trump."

McConnell has already spoken directly with the president on "multiple occasions" about the impeachment trial, according to four Capitol Hill and White House sources. At this point, sources familiar with McConnell's thinking say, the majority leader does not disagree with the conventional view of the forthcoming impeachment drama: the country's founders made it difficult to remove a president. Based on his understanding of the facts surrounding the Ukraine affair, in which the president allegedly tried to leverage military aid in return for a Ukrainian investigation into political rival Joe Biden and his son, McConnell believes there is little chance Trump would be convicted in the Senate—particularly if a vote to impeach in the House proceeds strictly along partisan lines, which is expected.

McConnell, White House sources say, has told Trump that privately. He is said to be dismissive, too, of the charges Democrats are likely to bring in the House that the Trump White House obstructed their investigation into the Ukraine matter.

Asked if Trump could be convicted, GOP Senate staffers answer with a standard caveat: "If all we know [about Ukraine-gate] is out there now, and nothing new emerges or happens, then no, he would be acquitted," says one staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bottom line, for them, is that the military aid money ultimately flowed to Ukraine, and the government in Kiev never investigated the Bidens. Trump's alleged intervention in the affair ended up being of no consequence, and the idea "that this amounts to an impeachable offense is a joke," as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham puts it.

But with Trump, this source acknowledges, "you never know." After all, it was just one day after Robert Mueller's Congressional testimony about so-called Russian collusion—which buried Democratic dreams of impeaching Trump on that issue—that the phone call between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart took place.

An impeachment is fluid. Things may not proceed precisely as the political pros believe they will. If Trump loses key votes of support in swing states he needs to win the election, how nervous will the party get? Is it possible enough senators get so nervous they go to the White House and ask that Trump resign, rather than have to put lawmakers on record voting for or against him? Might a weak president put the GOP's hold on the Senate at risk next November?

As of now, the president's rock-solid GOP polls make that seem unlikely, and the Trump base would be enraged and very unlikely to vote for Mike Pence, Nikki Haley or anyone else who might gain the nomination in Trump's wake. Trump may survive and even flourish, much as Bill Clinton did after the GOP's misguided impeachment effort in 1998.

But it isn't a lock. Trump's election upended all political norms and expectations; his impeachment trial is likely to do the same.

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed a quote from another person to Justin Amash.