Once again, Trump's fate in US Senate leader Mitch McConnell's hands

Senate leader McConnell already broke with Trump last month over the president's relentless effort to overturn Joe Biden's election win.
Senate leader McConnell already broke with Trump last month over the president's relentless effort to overturn Joe Biden's election win.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON, (AFP) - Mitch McConnell bridled over Donald Trump's crude governing style but found him a valuable White House ally. Now, the powerful US Senate majority leader controls the outgoing president's political future.

Following Mr Trump's humiliating second impeachment on Wednesday (Jan 13), the ever-calculating McConnell has a momentous decision to make: defend the president at all costs and rally his Republicans to prevent Mr Trump's conviction, or work to jettison the contentious and defiant billionaire businessman from Republican politics altogether.

Either way, the 78-year-old senator known for never letting a political crisis go to waste may be more than willing to have a weeks-long impeachment trial overshadow President-elect Joe Biden's early agenda and portray Democrats as going out of their way to exact revenge on Mr Trump.

The seven-term senator from Kentucky held Mr Trump's fate in his hands once before, when the embattled president faced a Senate trial a year ago on impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Mr Trump prevailed, as Mr McConnell held all but one member of his caucus in line to vote against conviction.

Mr McConnell, who has gleefully described himself as the "Grim Reaper" for his ability to kill off Democratic legislation at will, is again the critical link in the impeachment trial process.

But things are different in this second rodeo.

While Mr McConnell was fiercely opposed to the president's removal early last year, backing the White House line that Democrats were on a witch hunt, he said on Wednesday he has "not made a final decision" on whether to vote to convict Mr Trump for inciting an insurrection in which a mob of his supporters violently stormed the US Capitol.

The Senate leader, who already broke with Mr Trump last month over the president's relentless effort to overturn Biden's election win, has hardly been able to contain his disdain for the man in the White House.

The pair sometimes go weeks without speaking, a startling reality given they are the main powerbrokers in the ruling party.

Mr McConnell's wife Elaine Chao served as Trump's transportation secretary, giving the senator invaluable eyes and ears in the White House. But she resigned in disgust after the Capitol violence.

Breaking with Trump?

And in an explosive story on Tuesday citing people familiar with Mr McConnell's thinking, the New York Times reported that the leader has privately concluded Mr Trump committed impeachable offences, and that the Democrats' push to impeach would facilitate Mr Trump's banishment from the party.

Such leaks rarely occur by accident in Washington, and word is that Mr McConnell, believing Mr Trump has outlived his usefulness in cementing a conservative track for the nation, may be positioning himself for washing his hands off Trump altogether.

That opens the door for other Republicans in the Senate, many of whom take their cue from Mr McConnell, to break with Mr Trump.

If 17 of them do, Mr Trump would become the first president ever convicted of impeachment charges. A follow-up vote would ban him from future public office.

The trial, however, will not happen on Mr McConnell's watch. Democrats will control the Senate once Biden takes office on January 20, after Republicans lost two seats in runoff races this month in Georgia, where anti-Trump sentiment fueled a record Democratic turnout.

And Mr McConnell has refused to bring his chamber back into session early to allow the trial to kick off before Inauguration Day, meaning Mr Trump will be tried as a former president.

That said, Mr Trump has been a godsend for Mr McConnell's efforts to reshape the federal judiciary.

The president has nominated, and Mr McConnell's Senate has confirmed, three conservative Supreme Court justices, as well as 229 judges to federal benches, a modern day record for a single term.

And it was Mr McConnell's clamour over the judiciary - he defied president Barack Obama and refused to consider his Supreme Court nominee in an election year - that many say led to Mr Trump's shock 2016 win.

Mr Trump also pleased Mr McConnell by ramming through a massive US$2 trillion (S$2.65 trillion) tax cut that benefited corporations and the wealthy.

So what is Mr McConnell's play in the coming weeks? One option could be to publicly not oppose the trial, all the while knowing that Mr Trump is unlikely to be convicted.

Mr McConnell is no doubt aware that the trial could gum up Mr Biden's effort to shift the narrative to his pandemic relief and economic rescue plans.

And a second straight Trump acquittal may well strengthen Republicans heading into all-important 2022 midterm elections - although the party is facing a major internal debate over whether to embrace Trumpism or walk away.