“We can be smart or we can be stupid,” Mr. McConnell warned his rank and file during a closed-door lunch of halibut, fried chicken and pecan pie in the Capitol, steps from the Senate floor where the trial was to convene shortly. “The choice will be up to us.”
Republicans ultimately opted, as they almost invariably do, to stick with Mr. McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and block Democrats’ attempts to allow new evidence to be considered. All but one of them voted on Wednesday to acquit Mr. Trump of both of the charges against him.
The story of how Mr. McConnell held Republicans together — even in the face of stunning revelations about the president’s conduct and uneasiness in his party about Mr. Trump’s actions — reflects how a master Senate tactician deployed his command of procedure and keen political instincts to lock down a process that posed an existential threat to the president.
In doing so, he may have cemented the president’s hold on his office and provided a defiant campaign message to propel him to re-election, uniting the party around a figure who brooks no dissent and dealing a death blow to Democrats’ hopes of removing him.
“We thought they would finally work themselves up to doing this on something,” Mr. McConnell said. “It has been threatened endlessly. We needed to come up to speed on what actually happens, and that began in earnest last fall.”
So when Mr. McConnell fielded a phone call from Mr. Trump days before Christmas, he was ready. Stung by the House vote to impeach him on two charges, the president reached out to the majority leader from his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Fla., throwing out ideas about how to handle his coming Senate trial.
Mr. McConnell had a reassuring response for the third president ever to face removal by the Senate, urging Mr. Trump to trust him to manage the confrontation.
“What I have consistently said to him is I think I know more about the Senate than you do, which he usually concedes,” Mr. McConnell recalled, saying he told the president to keep public commentary about impeachment to a minimum. “My consistent advice to him with regard to this subject was to avoid it — and for the most part, for the most part, he did.”
Throughout the process, Mr. McConnell consistently refused to say how he viewed the president’s conduct, even as other Republicans eventually said that Mr. Trump’s actions were wrong, inappropriate and even shameful.
“I say things I choose to say,” he said when pressed Thursday.
Mr. McConnell set out to create the framework for a trial that his members could get behind, that could withstand the possibility of compromising new information emerging and that would deliver the White House a quick but credible verdict of “not guilty.” It went far from perfectly for Republicans — among other setbacks, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, voted “guilty” on the charge of abuse of power, depriving Mr. Trump of the absolute party loyalty he coveted — but Mr. McConnell reached his desired end.
“I’ve been in politics long enough to know you should never say never, but let me say this,” Mr. McConnell told Mr. Hoyer. “I will never allow the House of Representatives to dictate rules to the Senate. Never.”
Behind the scenes, Mr. McConnell was trying to nail down the backing of the handful of Republicans who could complicate his careful planning. Four senators had expressed enough qualms about the president to give them leverage to win concessions from Mr. McConnell: Mr. Romney of Utah, the 2012 presidential nominee; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who had in the past bucked Mr. McConnell and the White House; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a veteran politician with plans to retire, and Susan Collins of Maine, a centrist facing the re-election challenge of her career.
When Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat running for president, asked whether the chief justice overseeing a trial without witnesses would undermine the courts, Mr. McConnell scrawled a quick note to Ms. Murkowski, who was still undecided on witnesses, to point out the attack.
With his eye on the undecided senators, Mr. Cruz also counseled the White House legal team to avoid arguing that there was no quid pro quo — “a strategic mistake” that might make Mr. Bolton’s testimony seem more relevant to those lawmakers. During questioning, Mr. Cruz helped draft a question, submitted jointly with senators like Ms. Murkowski and Mr. Alexander, that asked Mr. Trump’s legal team whether, if Mr. Bolton testified to the existence of a quid pro quo, it would amount to an impeachable offense.
When Patrick Philbin, a deputy White House counsel, rose to answer, asserting that Mr. Trump had never engaged in a quid pro quo, Mr. Cruz was “a little white-knuckled,” he recalled. But then the answer he was looking for came: Even if there was a quid pro quo, it did not matter.
“I think that answer played a really important part in helping get the votes of both Lamar and Lisa,” Mr. Cruz said later.
By the next day, Ms. Murkowski had come out against witnesses, using as a rationale what she characterized as an attack on Chief Justice Roberts. She followed Mr. Alexander, who said that while Mr. Trump had acted inappropriately, his actions did not merit impeachment. The final vote on witnesses was 51 to 49 and the trial hurtled to its finale, with Mr. Romney’s vote to convict the president as the final twist.
Mr. McConnell shrugged off fierce criticism that he had overseen a sham.
But this vote was of course influenced by a dozen reasons : confrontation with re-election of senators, pressure from president Trump, the fears they will lose presidential elections and the wonderful Senate seat.
Conclusion: President Donald Trump had what he wanted – Acquittal – Not guilty!
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