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Bill Straub: Mitch McConnell is in an uncomfortable spot (and he did vote for Clinton’s impeachment)

Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell said a lot the other day by saying nothing.

Asked by a reporter at a press briefing, “On Friday night, federal prosecutors implicated the president on two crime. Do you have any concerns about that?” McConnell, of Louisville, answered, to wit: “I don’t have any observations to make about that.”

The inquiry, of course, refers to a guilty plea entered by President “Tiny” Trump’s (GASP) now former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, on a handful of charges related to campaign finance violations, for which he was sentenced to three years in the hoosegow on Wednesday.

It was revealed, as part of the plea deal, that Cohen, at Trump’s behest and direction, provided what the tabloids refer to as “hush money” to a pair of women, porn star Stormy Daniels and erstwhile Playboy magazine model Karen McDougal, to keep them from blabbing about their extramarital sexual encounters with the man who would be president during the course of the 2016 campaign. The payments were made to influence the outcome of the election.

During his appearance in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan, Cohen admitted providing what might politely be referred to as a bribe, asserting that he did so “because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his (Trump’s) dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass.”

Mitch McConnell

The long and the short of it is the ongoing investigation into the inner workings of the Trump campaign, which includes alleged collusion – there’s that word again – between the now-president’s advisors and Russian interests has implicated him in a felony. And there’s reason to believe, as Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller continues his probe, that more issues may be headed in The Donald’s direction.

Trump’s initial reaction to the news of Cohen’s guilty plea as transmitted via Twitter, as curious as it might seem, was, “Totally clears the President. Thank you!”, a nonsense claim since the plea details did everything but clear the president. He subsequently laid all of the absurd turn of events at Cohen’s feet.

The news has, however, brought Trump’s defenders out from the mist. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, who is retiring, thank goodness, offered to Manu Raju of CNN, “I don’t think he was involved in crimes but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to. You can blow it way out of proportion. You can do a lot of things.”

And then there’s the commonwealth’s own Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, who told WFPL-FM in Louisville last week that, “I don’t think that campaign violations should be criminal. We make things too criminal.”

That’s what makes McConnell’s comments, or lack thereof, remarkable. Afforded the opportunity to leap to Trump’s defense, as squalid as that may appear, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch deferred, leaving the impression that maybe there’s a reason to start getting prepared for – get ready for it – impeachment.

It’s fair to say participating in a felony, which Trump may have indeed done, is sufficient to seek his ouster from office. With Democrats assuming control of the House come January and given the details released as part of the Cohen plea, it’s reasonable to believe the ball will start rolling soon.

The House Democratic majority, which in all likelihood will be led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, of California, coming off a White House performance in which she carved up Trump like a Christmas goose, may choose to delay impeachment proceedings until it receives the Mueller report on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign. But the Cohen revelations would seem to make it all seem inevitable.

That puts our boy Mitch in a rather uncomfortable spot. Should the House vote articles of impeachment, how will he, as Senate majority leader, choose to proceed and how far is he willing to go in defense of a president who is, by all estimations, a grifter of the highest order?

McConnell has been down this road before. Back in 1999, before his tenure as GOP leader, he sat in judgment during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, charged with, among other things lying under oath during a deposition in a civil case. Basically, Clinton was sued by a woman named Paula Jones who claimed he sexually harassed her during his time as governor of Arkansas. As part of that case, he lied about a sexual encounter with a second woman, Monica Lewinsky, leading the House to adopt articles of impeachment.

The Senate heard testimony and acquitted Clinton on all charges. He ultimately settled out of court with Jones for $850,000.

On the face of it, at least, the claims against Trump are more serious than those imposed on Clinton, unless you consider conspiracy, potential bribery, abetting lying to Congress and campaign finance violations a mere bag of shells. And all this, remember, is not counting any potential “high crimes and misdemeanors’’ flowing out of the Mueller investigation.

McConnell, let the record show, voted to convict Clinton on both articles of impeachment – perjury to a grand jury and obstruction of justice.

“His (Clinton’s) cold, calculated actions betrayed the trust vested in him by the American people and the high office of the presidency,’’ McConnell said in a closed-door impeachment statement printed in the Congressional Record in February 1999. “The President of the United States looked 270 million Americans in the eye and lied — deliberately and methodically. He took an oath to faithfully execute the laws of this nation, and he violated that oath. He pledged to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and he violated that pledge. He took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and he willfully and repeatedly violated that oath.”

Pretty strong stuff and now ol’ Root-‘n-Branch may in the not too distant future be asked to sit in judgment of a president of his own party facing even more serious allegations.

Normally a party leader might be expected to view the evidence at hand and make a difficult vote for the sake of the country. Sen. Hugh Scott, R-PA, serving as minority leader, was one of the three senior GOP lawmakers who met with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office in 1974 to inform him that he had lost the support of the party over the Watergate scandal and that he should step down. Nixon resigned the next day.

But we aren’t talking about any normal party leader. This is Addison Mitchell McConnell who, during his tenure as leader, has consistently placed the interests of his Republican Party above those of the nation as a whole. The record establishing that claim is quite striking.

McConnell’s Clinton impeachment statement can easily be ignored. One of ol’ Root-‘n-Branch’s greatest assets as a politician is his ability to refuse to recoil from rank hypocrisy. Just because he believes something one day doesn’t mean he’ll believe it the next if it suits his purposes. It’s fair to expect his view of the allegations against Trump will be fairly fluid as he seeks a means to get the con man in chief off the hook.

As it stands, McConnell’s legacy as Senate Republican leader is a sour one. History will not treat him well, and his refusal to join then-President Barack Obama in denouncing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is just one example. That image could be cleaned up some during an impeachment trial.

Don’t count on it.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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