The upcoming week should bring the renewal of the fight over the Senate impeachment trial. There are a few key things to keep in mind.
First of all, all the different players have different interests, and there is also a wildcard. While those of us on the outside are freaking out about a president who seems completely out of control, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who are masters at parliamentary procedure, are likely much more tightly focused, eyeing the 2020 elections and control of the Senate.
The Senate is currently controlled by Republicans, but this is a bad cycle for them: they have 23 vulnerable seats while the Democrats have only 12. (Historical tidbit here: Senate terms are each six years but are staggered—one third of the Senate turns over every two years—and the original terms were determined by drawing straws. Because… the Founders were just regular people, and how else would they do it? And yes, some senators were accused of cheating to get the long straws.)
A standoff between a House and Senate controlled by different parties is not at all unique. But what’s unusual now about the struggle between the parties for control of the nation is that today’s Republican president is a wild card who cannot be trusted to help his own party. Indeed, the chances are good he will hurt it. That puts McConnell in a tight—and to this political historian, fascinating—spot.
Trump’s erratic behavior means that McConnell does not want Senators to be on record either for or against him if he can help it. If senators vote to convict him of the impeachment charges he certainly has committed, they will have to answer to angry base voters, who will turn to farther right Trump loyalists who will lose in a general election to virtually anyone who can fog a mirror. But if they vote to acquit Trump, they will be at the mercy of the news cycle, and it seems pretty clear that the next few months are going to bring bombshells.
Here’s what’s happening on that front. In the short term, Rudy Giuliani’s associate Lev Parnas, who spread around Russian money to GOP leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, has offered the contents of his cell phone to the House Intelligence Committee. We do not yet know what is on that cell phone, but if he is offering it up in hopes of cutting a cooperation deal, it should be something significant. There are rumors out there—still rumors—that what is on his phone is a game changer and that it involves Trump. We’ll see.
On February 4, Trump will address the House of Representatives for the annual State of the Union address. Although my own sense is that he will give a carefully scripted, monotone address, there is widespread speculation that he will not be able to contain himself, and will melt down on national television. In any case, it’s fair to say no one can predict what he will do. So no one would want to bank on him being a model of propriety for that.
Farther out is that the Supreme Court in March will review whether or not the president actually enjoys immunity from any sort of subpoenas at all. On the table are subpoenas for Trump’s financial affairs—investigators are looking at money laundering—and subpoenas for testimony by key witnesses. Precedent says the Supreme Court should decide against Trump, but we do not know what this court will do. Still, the pressure of that should worry Trump… and McConnell. It is my educated guess that the release of Trump’s financial records to investigators (it is not yet clear they will be made public) will be so devastating that he might well resign. If Senators have signed on to acquit Trump, and he becomes as overbearingly triumphant as he will upon acquittal, only to have it come out that he has committed obvious financial crimes, Republicans can expect to lose the Senate.
And that takes us only to March. There are eight more months between March and the election.
So, if you are McConnell, you want to steer as clear of Trump himself as you possibly can in order to keep control of the Senate. But McConnell himself has baggage that makes it hard for him to make a clean break from the president. With his shattering of norms to refuse to let President Barack H. Obama appoint a centrist Supreme Court Justice, McConnell showed us that nothing mattered to him but power. He is far too smart a man to support Trump on principle, and I suspect he got on board the Trump train simply to win. But that willingness to do anything to keep his party on top made him vulnerable.
My friend and colleague Michael Green, an expert on the machinations of Senate leadership, pointed out to me something really interesting. Back in September 2016, the Intelligence Community had identified Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the Obama administration wanted to make a joint statement with Republicans that it was happening, and voters should beware. But McConnell refused, making it “clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics,” according to a Washington Post report.
Mike points out that any normal partisan, operating on the normal level of cut-throat politics (politics is a blood sport, after all) would have signed on to the joint declaration, and then immediately gone in front of the cameras to say: “Barack Obama is so weak that the Russians are hacking our elections. Elect Republicans to take America back!” But McConnell did not. He refused to sign onto a joint declaration, and then kept quiet. His behavior suggests he was aware of the 2016 Russian assault on the election in favor of Republicans, and was okay with it. As heinous as that is, it now means he must stay with Trump or be exposed as part of the 2016 plot.
Meanwhile, Pelosi needs simply to keep the story in the news, with the expectation that Trump will continue to get worse, as all indications say he will. In the Washington Post, lawyers George Conway and Neal Katyal, smart men both, from different sides of the aisle, suggested that Pelosi should hand over just one article of impeachment to start: the one about obstruction of Congress. The evidence for that is all public, so it does not need witnesses, and it would mean that the second article would continue to hang over Trump’s head. Who knows if this is the angle she will choose, but she certainly continues to have options.
So, as pundits are tying themselves in knots about Pelosi and McConnell, I will be watching for news about Lev Parnas’s cell phone. (Update: here it is.)
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter on January 12 2020. Subscribe for free here.