Even before the House of Representatives voted on impeaching Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, was gearing up to defend the president in the next stage of the fight.
Mr Trump can be removed from office only if he is convicted by senators in the upper chamber of Congress, who will act as jurors in a trial that is likely to be held in January. John Roberts, the chief justice of the US Supreme Court, will preside over the proceedings.
“We don’t create impeachments, we judge them,” Mr McConnell said on the Senate floor this week, as he sparred with Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the upper chamber, over the rules of next month’s proceedings. “It is not the Senate’s job to leap into the breach and search desperately for ways to get to guilty. That would hardly be impartial justice”.
As impeachment moves from the House to the Senate, Mr McConnell has made clear his desire for a short event without live witnesses that will quickly acquit Mr Trump in the Ukrainegate case and protect the Republican majority in the Senate from political blowback in the 2020 election. Republicans are defending 23 of the 35 Senate seats that are up for re-election next year.
“He wants to put this to bed sooner rather than later, for fear of something else coming out,” said Chris Krueger, an analyst at Cowen Washington Research Group. “If the vote were held today, Trump would win”.
The chances that Democrats could secure the backing for impeachment of two-thirds of the Senate — including at least 20 Republicans, the threshold needed to expel Mr Trump from the White House — are considered minimal.
But Mr McConnell is trying to prevent a handful of centrist Republicans — such as Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — from defecting, which would deliver a symbolic blow to the president and the party.
“There are senators who work with Democrats and are so tired of Trump mucking things up for them,” said one former Senate aide. “It’s people like that who are making McConnell very nervous.”
Mr Schumer and many Democrats have been pushing for Mr McConnell to allow testimony in the Senate from a number of senior Trump administration officials who did not testify during the House proceedings, ranging from Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, to John Bolton, former national security adviser, to bolster the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress laid out in the House impeachment articles.
In a sign of the Democratic frustration with Mr McConnell’s unwillingness to consider these witnesses, Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, raised the possibility of a delay in formally sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate. “Some think it’s a good idea. And we need to talk about it,” Mr Hoyer said, according to Politico.
Mr Trump has vacillated between pushing for a short trial and demanding a long, drawn-out affair to energise his supporters who believe the impeachment is a “hoax”. A long trial could also raise the possibility of new testimony that could potentially hurt the case made by Democrats.
Among the potential witnesses floated by the White House and some Republicans are Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, and Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence committee. But Mr McConnell has been wary of broadening the trial, privately warning fellow Republican senators that it might lead to “mutually assured destruction”, according to The Washington Post.
Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican senator and close ally of Mr Trump, has also urged the president to accept a short trial, saying, “If somebody is ready to acquit you, I’d sort of get out of the way.”
Mr Trump has defended his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — which lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry — by arguing that he was simply demanding that Ukraine make more efforts to tackle corruption. But Democrats have accused him of using the claims as a smokescreen to hide his campaign to put pressure on Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 US president election.
While much of the focus in the Senate is centred around possible Republican defections, Mr Schumer will have his own challenges heading into next month’s trial.
There are some centrist Democrats who may be tempted to acquit Mr Trump, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Doug Jones of Alabama.
There are also five Democratic senators running for the party’s presidential nomination — including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Michael Bennett of Colorado — who may become impatient if the trial drags on, since the Iowa caucus will be held in early February.
In the impeachment trial, senators have to sit through the proceedings and can only ask written questions submitted to Mr Roberts, preventing them from any political campaigning.
The impact of the impeachment trial on the general election in November is still a toss-up, since it is so many months away.
“When he’s not whining, Trump is betting that this is going to juice his base, [but] I believe it’s going to juice our [Democratic] base,” said Jim Manley, a former Democratic aide in the Senate.
“I don’t know how it’s going to shake out, but it’s clearly in Trump’s head,” added Mr Krueger. “This is going to bother him and he’s going to nurture this grievance for the rest of his life”.