McConnell makes strategic retreat to keep firm grip on Trump trial

As the impeachment trial opened on Tuesday afternoon, McConnell spoke extensively on the need for “fairness,” declaring that Trump will finally get a chance to defend himself. McConnell portrayed Trump as a victim of an unfair process in the House, an argument that the president has made passionately for months.

McConnell even presented himself as a defender of the House and bipartisanship itself, a claim that Democrats would surely ridicule.

“Here in the Senate, the president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field with the House Democrats, and will finally be able to present the president’s case. Finally, some fairness,” McConnell said. “On every point, our straightforward resolution will bring the clarity and fairness that everyone deserves — the president of the United States, the House of Representatives, and the American people.”

McConnell also repeated a mantra he’s employed for months in saying he wants to use the “Clinton precedent” for the Trump trial: “Fair is fair.”

Schumer objected furiously to McConnell’s resolution, using dramatic language that shows the stakes for Senate Democrats in this fight. The New York Democrat is aware that McConnell is trying to set up a final verdict within two weeks, possibly by the time Trump gives his State of the Union address on Feb. 4.

“On something as important as impeachment, the McConnell resolution is nothing short of a national disgrace,” Schumer said. “This will go down, this resolution, as one of the darker moments in the Senate history. Perhaps even one of the darkest.”

McConnell ignored the comments and kept his focus on his own caucus, where he was trying to maintain GOP unity. In fact, his resolution was changing so fast it left some senators’ heads spinning: As he headed to a party lunch Tuesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he hadn’t even been able to review McConnell’s initial version, let alone the revised one.

Ultimately, GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio), among others, said they couldn’t support the timeline that McConnell was trying to set for the trial. They wanted three calendar days for both sides to present their cases, rather than two. The party debated the matter at the lunch, and only when McConnell’s resolution was read on the Senate floor was it clear that he had backtracked.

Because the objections were from Republicans — and McConnell was relying only on GOP votes to pass the resolution — he had to agree to the change, which could add two days to the proceedings.

The modest retreat also raises questions about whether McConnell will be able to keep all his rank-and-file members in line for the crucial vote on witnesses next week. So far, three Republican senators have expressed openness to hearing from witnesses, but Democrats need one more. And crossing the president and the powerful majority leader would be a tough decision for any GOP senator.

McConnell’s deputies scoffed at the notion that he’d done anything more than give some ground on the cosmetics of the trial.

“The majority leader was correct that nowhere near that amount of time will be taken. But I think as a visual it just seems fairer to spread the 24 hours over [three] days,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who serves on the GOP leadership team.

“I think it probably took some people probably by surprise in squeezing the time constraints,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) before the resolution was altered. “I think he’s got a difficult task in front of him, there’s just no question about it. He’s done an excellent job of listening to us, and I’m sure he’s going to continue do that.”

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