When the Senate impeachment trial began on January 21, two things seemed certain — or at least very, very likely:
1) There would be witnesses called by both sides.
2) The trial would still be going when President Donald Trump came to Capitol Hill to deliver his State of the Union address two weeks later on February 4.
With Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander’s announcement late Thursday night that he would vote against calling witnesses, it now looks very, very likely that not only will there be no witnesses — the first time that has been the case in a Senate impeachment trial — but that the entire trial could wrap up by Friday night or early Saturday morning.
How? One man: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
From beginning to (what looks like the) end, the Kentucky Republican has carefully — and quietly — executed a strategy designed to keep his conference in line on key votes.
It began with McConnell’s power play earlier this month, announcing that he had 51 votes to move forward with the start of the Senate impeachment trial with no promises made on whether or not witnesses would be called or further documents would be sought. McConnell’s opening gambit effectively knee-capped Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been holding on to the two articles of impeachment passed by the House late last year in hopes of extracting concessions from McConnell.
Throughout the intervening two-ish weeks, McConnell has had a decidedly low public profile — usually only speaking in the Senate chamber to announce when there would be a break in either the opening statements or the question-and-answer period.
That lack of a public presence was, of course, by design. The best way to think of McConnell is like a duck — he appears to be gliding slowly and without seeming effort on the surface, all the while paddling furiously under the surface.
And boy did McConnell ever paddle this week. On Tuesday, McConnell bluntly told his colleagues in a closed-door session that Republicans did not yet have the votes needed to block witnesses being called. But he also put a strategy in place: emphasize the fact that lots and lots of witnesses were called in the House impeachment proceedings and make very clear to on-the-fence senators that Democrats would never be satisfied with only one witness — even if that witness was former national security adviser John Bolton. They would ask for more witnesses post-Bolton and the trial could go on for weeks or even months. And that would hurt any and all vulnerable Republicans on the ballot this November.
The fruits of McConnell’s labor began to be seen Wednesday afternoon when Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the most endangered Republican up for reelection this year, came out in opposition to witnesses.
“I do not believe we need to hear from an 18th witness,” Gardner said in a statement, adding that he had “reached this decision after carefully weighing the House managers and defense arguments and closely reviewing the evidence from the House, which included well over 100 hours of testimony from 17 witnesses.”
Gardner’s statement was seen as a clear sign that the most vulnerable Republicans — Arizona’s Martha McSally, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis — had been convinced that a vote for witnesses was opening a Pandora’s box that would make it increasingly difficult to put the impeachment trial behind them and turn to making their own case to voters.
With the vulnerable 2020ers all in line — with the notable exception of Maine’s Susan Collins, who announced Thursday she would vote for witnesses — it all came down to Alexander, a retiring senator and longtime establishment figure who had voiced a willingness to consider the idea of calling witnesses.
But, again, McConnell made the difference. McConnell, a master of relationships, is extremely close to Alexander. The two men have known each other, in fact, since 1969 when they were both young staffers in the nation’s capitol. As The New York Times noted in a 2017 profile of their friendship, McConnell called Alexander “one of my closest confidantes and a very good friend” in his 2016 memoir “The Long Game.” In September, when Alexander broke the Tennessee record for days of service as either governor or senator (9,024!), McConnell took to the Senate floor to praise his friend with these words: “As we’ve often heard him say about the United States Senate, ‘It’s hard to get here. It’s hard to stay here. And while you’re here, you might as well try to accomplish something.’ He surely has followed his own advice.”
Now, Alexander’s closeness to McConell is, of course, not the only reason that Alexander will vote against witnesses. As he said in his statement, he believes Trump’s conduct in regard to Ukraine was “inappropriate” but not impeachable. But it’s impossible to conclude that Alexander’s relationship with McConnell — and McConnell’s stated opposition to witnesses and desire for the shortest possible trial — had no impact on his decision.
Obviously, it’s never over until it’s over. And the possibility of a 50-50 tie — with Chief Justice John Roberts stepping in to decide the witness question — still exists. (It’s very, very hard for me to imagine Roberts, who, for years, has voiced concerns about the Supreme Court being seen as political, stepping in to decide the matter.)
But the most likely scenario by far is that the witness vote fails and Trump is acquitted long before Super Bowl Sunday dawns. Which was unthinkable 10 days ago and is a testament to McConnell’s skills as a persuader and vote-counting virtuoso.