The final decision on whether to convict US President Donald Trump on his impeachment charge will come down to 100 Senators, 50 of them Republican – but just one man could seal his fate.
What Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declares about his vote in the President’s upcoming Senate trial could be the difference between Trump shrugging off being the first ever US president to be impeached twice, and him leaving office humiliated, unable to stand again and millions of dollars worse off.
“If he publicly says he will impeach, then the dam breaks,” a Democrat staffer told BuzzFeed News.
On Thursday, Trump was impeached on a single charge of “incitement of insurrection”, passed by a margin of 232-197 in the House of Representatives.
Every Democrat voted yes. Ten Republicans joined them. That’s 10 more than the last impeachment vote, in February 2020, where every GOP member in the House stood by Trump.
The matter now passes to the Senate, where Trump faces a trial on the charges.
It’s not a criminal trial; Trump won’t go to prison. But if convicted, he’s removed from the Oval Office. If he’s already left – which is likely because Trump’s term ends on January 20 – then the other penalties became more important.
If impeached in the Senate, Trump can be barred from standing from office in the future. In addition, some perks afforded to former presidents, such as funding for an office, travel and staff, can be removed. This can easily amount to more than US$1 million annually.
However, the Senate is also where the process gets bogged down. A two-thirds majority of 67 Senators is needed. If the impeachment is pushed beyond January 20, 17 Republican senators will have to vote to convict Trump, assuming every Democrat does the same.
That is a high bar to reach. During Trump’s 2020 impeachment trial, just one GOP senator – former presidential candidate Mitt Romney – went against Trump.
Much of the reason for that could be put down to the diligent work of McConnell. Despite not agreeing with the President on all matters, he has nonetheless been a staunch defender of Trump in the Senate and has turned a blind eye to many of his excesses.
McCONNELL’S VITAL ROLE
McConnell blocked key witnesses from appearing at the trial during Trump’s first impeachment, made strong statements that there was “no chance” he would be removed from office and managed to keep all but one Republican on side.
Now, it appears, McConnell’s steadfast support has melted away.
Strikingly, he has even held out the possibility that he may vote to convict the man he once protected.
“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,” he said on Wednesday before the vote in the House.
Comments attributed to McConnell in media reports have been even stronger.
Fox News reported that he is “done” and “furious” with Trump.
According to The New York Times, McConnell has told colleagues he “hates” Trump and is “pleased” the impeachment process is happening following his dismay at the President’s comments regarding the storming of the US Capitol.
On the day of the attack, Trump referred to “great patriots” who had been “unfairly treated”.
‘THE DAM COULD BREAK’
Following Thursday’s vote, Trump released a video condemning the violence in Washington DC that led to five deaths and his impeachment.
“Mob violence goes against everything I believe in and everything our movement stands for,” he said.
“No true supporters of mine could ever endorse political violence.”
Some have attributed these much stronger statements as part of an effort to win around McConnell and to shore up support among Republican senators.
Talking to BuzzFeed News, a staff member of a Democratic Senator said McConnell’s next move was now key.
“If he publicly says he will impeach, then the dam breaks.
“He can basically give cover to [Republicans] who also want to impeach and salvage his own reputation at the same time.”
That follows similar comments from Democrat Adam Schiff last week.
“These reports that Mitch McConnell may be open to the impeachment charges as well is a potential earthquake in the Senate,” he told CNN.
Turning on Trump would be a huge move for McConnell that may not win him friends in the GOP. But, at 78 years old and with his position secure, he may not care very much.
McConnell has so far resisted attempts for an emergency trial in the Senate prior to Trump leaving office on Thursday.
The earliest the trial could begin would be January 19, he has said, and it would take days if not weeks to complete.
That could overshadow incoming president Joe Biden’s first days in office.
On January 20, the Democrats will take control of the Senate. But McConnell will still have sway as Senate minority leader.
Even if he declared he that he would vote against Trump, it’s not certain he would be convicted.
Trump has many loyal Republican senators who have backed him to the hilt, and will likely continue to do so.
But if McConnell was to turn, the prospect of Trump going down in history yet again – this time as the first US president ever to be convicted following an impeachment – will go from farfetched to entirely possible.
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