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Watching Mitch McConnell

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Reuters

The US House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to impeach President Trump a second time. The outcome was a bit different this time because 10 House Republicans (of 211 total) voted in favor.

But there's a far more consequential difference between this impeachment and the one early last year. This time, there's a genuine possibility that when the article is sent to the Senate, two thirds of senators will vote to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors. That would be a first in American history.

The outcome hinges on one man: Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

McConnell leads the Republican Senate caucus. If he tells fellow Republicans that he intends to vote for conviction, many will probably join him. If he opposes conviction, Trump will be acquitted.

On Tuesday, multiple major media outlets — including Republican-friendly Fox News — dropped bombshell news that sources close to McConnell say he supports Trump's impeachment. It's not yet clear how he will vote, but these sources are highly unlikely to have spoken to the media without McConnell's blessing.

McConnell announced on Wednesday that he would not agree to call the Senate back into session until January 19, which means there will be no Senate verdict until Joe Biden has been inaugurated and Trump is out of office. But he also reportedly told GOP colleagues on Wednesday that he hasn't decided whether he will vote to convict.

Why would McConnell vote to convict Trump after his presidency is over? It's possible that a man who has devoted his working life to the Senate is so deeply offended by last week's violence and vandalism inside the halls of Congress that he will vote to remove Trump to send a message about the power and integrity of the legislative branch of the US government.

But there is also political calculus at work. There is now a battle underway for the future of the Republican Party. McConnell may not care very much that a majority of Americans back impeachment following last week's rioting in the Capitol, but he can also see a strong division of opinion among Republican voters over Trump's leadership.

According to data from the Wall Street Journal, 46.6 percent of GOP voters say they identify more as supporters of Trump than as Republicans. About 40 percent say the opposite.

Will continuing support for Donald Trump determine the future of the Republican Party? The same party that Senator McConnell has served for decades? The Senate could also vote to bar Trump from ever again running for federal office.

Last week's violence has given McConnell an opportunity to discredit Trump and try to pull the party away from him. Maybe McConnell fears that failure to convict would allow the threat Trump poses — to both the Republican Party and the continuation of democracy free of mob violence — to grow. Perhaps this is the GOP's last best chance to pass judgment on Donald Trump, even after he has left office.

We don't yet know how Senator McConnell will vote, but it's already clear that Mitch McConnell will soon have an historic decision to make.


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