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- President Donald Trump was acquitted on two articles of impeachment on Wednesday.
- He owes a great deal of it to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
- McConnell’s ruthless campaign to bring about a speedy trial and a forgone conclusion left Democrats with little but the hope that voters will notice when the 2020 election arrives.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The descriptions of McConnell were largely unflattering, but there was no denying that he was one thing: victorious.
Unlike Trump, McConnell’s power in the GOP does not come from a populist tone, it is his political acumen — whether that means never bringing a Supreme Court Justice nominee to a vote, stalling legislation passed by the House, or not subpoenaing former national security adviser John Bolton to come before the Senate in Trump’s trial.
In his victory statement to the press on Wednesday, McConnell reflected that. It was not a statement meant for the American people or even the Republican party, but for the DC establishment.
The Senate Majority Leader led a ruthless campaign to end the impeachment process as quickly as possible, and with as little political damage to Trump as possible. The goal was never a secret, and on all counts, more or less, he achieved it — leaving the Democrats with almost nothing to show for a grueling, months-long process.
The facts of the case were stark: House managers and video witnesses laid out a case that Trump had held up military aid to Ukraine and a visit to the White House. Meanwhile, a pressure campaign was launched outside of formal channels to urge Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.
Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The case was convincing enough that multiple GOP senators, though declining to acquit, called Trump’s actions “inappropriate” and “shameful and wrong.”
Per McConnell’s comments, the trial seemed to exist in a separate reality.
He touched very little on the facts of the case, calling the process both a “political” and “partisan exercise.” He stated that he believed that, politically, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not want to go down the path of impeachment but was “dragged” into the process. He also alternately took jabs at the House managers’ and Pelosi’s strategy as if adding commentary to a sports match.
“Well, that brought one of those rare smiles to my face, which you witnessed, in which I was perplexed by the strategy that was being employed,” he said referring to an attempt to leverage the calling of witnesses in the Senate trial.
To McConnell, the trial was not to determine whether the president abused his power to ask a foreign government to investigate a political opponent, it was a partisan political move started by Democrats in the House, which he ended swiftly and without witnesses when it came under his power in the Senate.
He repeatedly avoided addressing the supposed heart of the case, dodging reporters’ questions about whether Trump’s actions over Ukraine were wrong.
Long before Wednesday’s vote, the acquittal was a foregone conclusion.
Voting to remove the president requires a two-thirds majority, and the single GOP defector — Sen. Mitt Romney — came far short of the 20 GOP votes needed to remove the president.
The real battle came the week before, in a vote on whether to have witnesses testify in the Senate trial.
On that issue, it seemed at one point like the Democrats could prevail, and at the very least confront Trump and the Republicans with more unflattering testimony, spinning out the impeachment drama for longer.
However, McConnell’s GOP held the line. Only two Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins and Mitt Romney — voted in favor of allowing witnesses. Even with the lower threshold of a simple majority, the Democrats were still two short of the 51 votes they needed.
There was no drawn-out process with additional witnesses and documents that, even if they had no hope of winning over 20 Republicans — could have had a meaningful impact on public opinion.
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In the short term, some worry that victory will embolden Trump, arguably making it more likely that a situation like that with Ukraine will happen again.
Democrats were between a rock and a hard place when it came to impeachment.
They declined to impeach after the Mueller report, knowing it would be politically fraught, but felt compelled to act after a whistleblower complaint kicked off the Ukraine scandal.
If they did not impeach, they feared angry voters would never forgive them for passing up the chance to hold Trump accountable.
But the downside of impeachment has been that any other legislation they may have wanted to tout — for example, a bill to lower the price of prescription drugs — was overshadowed by the grinding process of putting Trump on trial.
And at the end, they lost the battle — possibly moderate seats in 2020.
It won’t be until November 2020 that Democrats will know whether their gambit — that an ultimately futile impeachment process would cut through enough to turn the public against Trump — had paid off.
Until then, McConnell is still smiling.