Graham fights Trump’s ouster as McConnell keeps his options open

Sen. Lindsey Graham is leading the charge against President Donald Trump’s impeachment and removal in the Senate, even as the White House remains largely uninvolved and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested he's open to voting to convict the president.

Graham, who just last week said he had had “enough” of Trump’s bid to overturn the election results after he incited a deadly riot at the Capitol, has been calling around to Republican senators urging them to oppose convicting the president in the Senate’s upcoming impeachment trial, according to three people familiar with the effort.

Kevin Bishop, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Republican, confirmed that Graham “has been calling on his own,” adding, “Honestly we’re way ahead of any request from the White House.”

McConnell is taking a markedly different approach. In a letter to Republican senators on Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican did not immediately reject the House’s impeachment of Trump and said he plans to weigh the opposing views during the trial. He also urged his colleagues to keep their powder dry in the run-up to the trial. The House impeached Trump in a bipartisan vote on Wednesday evening.

“[W]hile the press has been full of speculation, I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate,” McConnell wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by POLITICO and a McConnell spokesperson.

Regardless, McConnell is not looking to expedite any action. In his letter, McConnell also rejected Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s request that the Senate reconvene this week as soon as the House sends the impeachment article across the Capitol. That means the trial will not begin until Jan. 19 at the earliest.

“Given the history, rules, and Senate precedents governing presidential impeachment trials, there has never been any chance that any fair or appropriate trial would conclude before President-elect Biden is sworn in,” McConnell wrote. “Whether it were to begin this week, next week, or later, the trial will not end until after the President has left office. This is simply a fact.”

Most Senate Republicans appeared to heed McConnell's advice and did not issue statements after Trump became the first president to be impeached twice. A few GOP senators have said they think Trump should resign or may have committed impeachable offenses, including Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has said he'd consider articles of impeachment.

But the vast majority haven't taken a position on Trump's impeachment and removal, even as some have criticized his rhetoric that fueled the insurrection.

A two-thirds majority is required to convict and remove the president, meaning 17 Republicans would need to join all Democrats. It's unclear whether the numbers would be there, but if McConnell did vote to convict, it would increase the likelihood others would follow.

"Make no mistake, there will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate," Schumer said Wednesday. "There will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanors; and if the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him from running again."

In a statement late Wednesday night, President-elect Joe Biden praised the House’s vote to impeach Trump but urged Senate leaders to not let the trial get in the way of his Cabinet confirmations and his legislative agenda, including Covid-19 relief, which Biden has said will be his top priority.

“This nation also remains in the grip of a deadly virus and a reeling economy,” Biden said. “I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation.”

Meanwhile, the White House has remained largely on the sidelines. During Trump’s first impeachment, Trump had a full legal team and a messaging operation emanating from the White House — one that recruited Trump’s top allies on Capitol Hill and other outside advisers to defend the president on the airwaves.

But as the House was preparing a vote to impeach Trump on Wednesday, few Republicans were openly defending the president. Instead, some were haranguing the House’s impeachment process as rushed and unfair, and arguing that the Democrat-led efforts would further divide the country.

In a statement Wednesday, Graham criticized Senate leadership for its handling of the House’s impeachment proceedings, saying GOP leaders were “making the problem worse, not better.”

Though Graham was not specific, his comments came after the New York Times first reported, and confirmed by POLITICO, that McConnell told associates that he believes Trump committed impeachable offenses after he incited Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol, which left at least five people dead.

“The last thing the country needs is an impeachment trial of a president who is leaving office in one week,” Graham said in his statement, calling out the handful of Republicans who have already said they will vote in favor of impeachment.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, Graham had taken to the Senate floor to chastise the president and his supporters. “Enough is enough,” he said of the effort to stop the certification of Biden’s win. “Count me out.”

Two days after the riots, Graham warned Speaker Nancy Pelosi against pursuing articles of impeachment. That same day, however, he was heckled at an airport by Trump supporters, who called him a traitor.

On Tuesday, Graham rode with Trump on Air Force One to a stop at the southern border. That night, word began circulating that the senator was asking his GOP colleagues to put out their own anti-impeachment statements as a means of closing ranks around Trump and stopping the momentum that appeared to be building when it was reported that McConnell was personally comfortable with the president’s ouster. Graham’s efforts came as a surprise to at least some in leadership.

“Lindsey often does his own thing often without his staff looped in,” a senior GOP Senate aide said.

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