McConnell changes direction (at least a bit) on impeachment trial

Mitch McConnell had a specific game plan for a slanted impeachment trial for Donald Trump. But then McConnell retreated - which he does not often do.
Senate Democrats And Republicans Hold Weekly Policy Luncheons
Mitch McConnell (R-KY)Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled his blueprint for Donald Trump's impeachment trial last night, it landed with a thud.

Under the GOP leader's vision, for example, both sides would present their cases over just two days -- opening the door to late-night proceedings that few Americans would see. McConnell's plan also did not automatically admit evidence collected as part of the House's impeachment inquiry as part of the Senate proceedings.

Senate Democrats howled, pointing to the Republican leadership's approach as evidence of a rigged trial, and a sharp departure from the rules during the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999. This afternoon, to the surprise of many, McConnell shifted his posture.

The last-minute changes -- which were written by hand on the resolution, with other lines crossed out -- were revealed on Tuesday as the organizing resolution for President Donald Trump's Senate trial was being read into the record on the Senate floor. The new version gives both side 24 hours to make their case over three days, instead of the two initially proposed by McConnell on Monday.... The change means the trial days, which start at 1 p.m. ET, will likely now conclude around 9 pm. [...]

McConnell also tweaked another controversial provision that could have barred all the evidence against Trump gathered by the House Democrats' inquiry from being entered into the Senate record.

To be sure, these changes in direction do not entirely resolve the partisan conflict. The revised resolution still offers no guarantees on witness testimony and no assurances that senators will be able to consider new evidence.

But it was an unexpected step all the same -- which naturally raises questions about why McConnell, after weeks of planning, changed his mind.

After all, as recently as last night, the Republican leader said he had the votes to pass his original blueprint, as-is. Was McConnell fibbing? Did he count to 51 poorly? Or did some members balk as the public debate proceeded throughout the morning?

Don't discount that third possibility too quickly: the fact that the changes were written by hand suggests they were made rather late in the process. There was a Senate GOP conference meeting in the late morning, and it's easy to imagine some of McConnell's members expressing reservations about his game plan prompting some 11th-hour edits to the resolution.

Whatever the reasoning, McConnell found it necessary to retreat -- which he does not often do. Keep this in mind as the process moves forward, because if the Kentucky Republican has less control than he expects to have, the trial may very well include elements he'd prefer to leave out.

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