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Al Cross: We have waited patiently for the moment that Mitch McConnell would come to his senses . . .


More than once, this space has said Mitch McConnell would face a day of reckoning in his relationship with Donald Trump – a moment when the Senate majority leader would have to decide to maintain fealty to the president of his party or would say, at least to himself, that “enough is enough” when it comes to Trump’s use of the presidency to serve his personal interests.

We thought the day might come with the Mueller Report about Russian interference in the 2016 election, but Trump and Attorney General William Barr turned that into a media muddle. Then, Trump was revealed to have held Congress-passed military aid hostage for a public statement by Ukraine that it was investigating former vice president Joe Biden and his son and a Russia-created tale that the election interference came from Ukraine.

The day of reckoning came Sept. 25, when the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 “favor, though” call with Ukraine’s president. McConnell, who reportedly urged Trump to make the release, said it was “laughable to think this is anywhere close to an impeachable offense” because there was no quid pro quo in the text.

Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell

Testimony before the House Intelligence Committee (and recent reporting by The New York Times) showed that such a “drug deal” with Ukraine, as Trump national security adviser John Bolton reportedly called it, was clearly Trump’s intent until Sept. 11, when he released the aid – two days after the committee announced it was investigating the matter, and the day after Bolton resigned or was fired.

However, the investigation that produced two articles of impeachment was incomplete and short of first-hand evidence, because Trump and most of his lieutenants refused to cooperate with it, and the Democrats who control the House decided not to go to court to force testimony and production of records – which would have taken months, putting impeachment into a presidential election year. (They did pass an article accusing Trump of obstructing Congress, in addition to the one alleging abuse of power with Ukraine.)

Democrats want the Senate to call witnesses with more direct knowledge, and Bolton now says he would testify under subpoena. Even if four Republican senators bolted and voted with Democrats to make a majority for hearing from Bolton and others, Trump could claim executive privilege and tie things up in court.

Bolton probably knows McConnell and other Republican senators don’t want to hear from him or anyone else. McConnell says he has the votes to impose the impeachment trial procedure he wants: Presentations by each side, written questions from senators, and then votes on witnesses, subpoenas, dismissal or whatever. He says the rules will be the same that the Senate followed for Democrat Bill Clinton’s trial 21 years ago, but that’s an off-base analogy; in that case, the witnesses Republicans wanted had already testified.

Senate Republicans say they shouldn’t have to do the work that the House should have done, but that argument is a facile one, simply fulfilling Trump’s stonewalling strategy. Stonewalling shouldn’t be rewarded. The public deserves to hear testimony under oath from Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney (who first acknowledged a quid pro quo, then tried to walk it back) and others, including Trump himself.

Fat chance. Trump tweeted about wanting witnesses, but McConnell’s counter-counsel apparently prevailed. As for his judgment of the outcome, the senator said, “I’m not an impartial juror.”

McConnell says impeachment is a political process, not a judicial one, but that is not entirely true. The Constitution treats the Senate proceeding as a trial, gives the chief justice the gavel, and requires senators to take a separate oath, which a Senate rule requires them to swear “I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and the laws, so help me God.”

Nevertheless, politics will rule. Trump’s impeachment is the first of a president running for re-election, and he is highly popular among Republicans (especially in Kentucky, where McConnell is on the ballot), so those in Congress fear him. McConnell and House Speaker Pelosi are both running political campaigns, he to discredit her process and she to discredit his, by delaying delivery of the impeachment articles.

All this is bigger than McConnell, Pelosi, Trump or this year’s elections. It’s about who we are as a country, the rule of law, the health of our democracy, and our sovereignty. In the end, it comes back to Russia – our foe (not necessarily Trump’s, however) and Ukraine’s.

Last July, Gen. John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff, spoke at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s Business Summit and Annual Meeting. During the question-and-answer session, without being asked about the Muller Report, Kelly said that he was one of the few Americans who had read it “cover to cover,” and that it showed how Russians “attacked our way of governing ourselves, the most precious thing we have,” next to God.

Then came the point to remember: “They made a decision about who they wanted to be president, and they were very good at what they did.” Later, Kelly urged the audience to read the report to see how Russians “got into our social media network” to hurt Hillary Clinton or help Trump.

McConnell has said Russia interfered in the election and should be punished for it. But Trump is super-sensitive to charges Russia got him elected, so McConnell has avoided saying anything like Kelly did. Doing that would forever change the McConnell-Trump relationship, which is keeping the Republican Party together. Additional witnesses and documents at a Senate trial could hurt Trump, and thus the narrow GOP Senate majority that makes McConnell the second most powerful person in Washington. Sometimes he seems to be the most powerful, given Trump’s desultory approach to governing.

McConnell’s day of reckoning has come and gone, and he’s sticking with Trump. The senator likes to say that he never wanted to be president, but he has become part and parcel of a presidency like none other.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.


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