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Impeachment Briefing: Republicans Divided

This is the Impeachment Briefing, The Times’s newsletter about the impeachment investigation. Sign up here to get it in your inbox. What …

This is the Impeachment Briefing, The Times’s newsletter about the impeachment investigation. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

What happened today

  • A day after the House impeached President Trump for a second time, the Senate scrambled to figure out the trial that could determine whether he will be barred from holding future office, which most likely won’t begin until after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is sworn in next week.

  • Some Democrats said Speaker Nancy Pelosi might wait until Monday, Jan. 25, or longer, to transmit the article of impeachment, to allow time for the Senate to confirm Mr. Biden’s national security team. Others cautioned that she could transmit it as soon as Friday, though the Senate would wait to act.

  • Behind closed doors, Democratic and Republican leaders worked to try to carve out a set of rules that would allow the chamber to split time between the trial and the legislative business of confirming Mr. Biden’s cabinet nominees and assembling another stimulus package.

  • Senate Republicans made clear they were weighing the practical and political calculations involved. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, signaled she was open to convicting Mr. Trump at the trial. She voted against conviction during his first impeachment trial.

McConnell’s split with Trump

Earlier this week my colleague Jonathan Martin reported that Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, had concluded that Mr. Trump committed impeachable offenses and believes impeachment could make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the party. I asked him more about how Mr. McConnell reached this point.

Jonathan, as we approach a trial, who is more powerful in the Republican Party: McConnell or Trump?

It depends what branch of the Republican Party you’re asking about. The congressional and donor wing of the party prefers Mitch McConnell. Surveys show that grass-roots voters care more for Donald Trump. But this is a moving story. People are still absorbing what happened last week — it’s still unfolding what Trump’s role in it was. There are only going to be more details that emerge about his role in the riot and the aftermath. And we just don’t know what kind of role Trump will have in three months, let alone next year — especially with no Twitter.

Why the dramatic public split now?

McConnell thinks Trump is a bad actor and bad for the party. He wants a more traditional G.O.P. — pro-free trade, internationalist on national security, pro-business and lower taxes. Most significant, McConnell wants to win elections and reclaim the majority. He views Trump as an impediment to doing just that and is shaped by the many losses his party suffered, before and during the Trump years, because of who came out of G.O.P. primaries.

McConnell potentially voting to convict Trump seems like a remarkable ending to their relationship after four years of symbiosis. How did it come to this?

They’re two very different people. McConnell saw Trump as someone he could leverage to achieve what he thought were right-of-center policy advances. He always understood the bargain for what it was. But keep in mind what happened last week. McConnell lost his majority on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the institution to which he has devoted much of his adult life, beginning with an internship when he was in college, was invaded and ransacked in an effort to overturn an election. In back-to-back fashion, McConnell saw his lifelong goal of being majority leader taken away from him and then the building he reveres was trashed. It was a hell of a culmination.

He’s made it clear to his Senate colleagues he didn’t think the timing would work to hold a trial right after the House voted to impeach Mr. Trump. Was it simply a logistical argument?

McConnell clearly wants to use this moment to purge Donald Trump from the party. But I don’t think he wants to do it in a quickie fashion that would make it harder to get G.O.P. votes. And I think he likes the idea of Democrats leading the charge and doing his dirty work for him, after Biden is inaugurated. It would be a Democratic-led push with help from Senate Republicans.

How many Senate Republicans will actually join McConnell, if he votes to convict?

It’s still unlikely today there would be 17 senators to vote for conviction, which is what’s needed to get two-thirds of the chamber’s vote, assuming every Democrat votes aye. You could probably find a half dozen, maybe a few more. The two big questions are: What new facts come out or events transpire between now and the Senate vote, and how does McConnell himself vote? And, if he votes aye, does he nudge his Republican colleagues to join him?

Liz Cheney’s dilemma

My colleague Catie Edmondson, who covers Congress, wrote today about Representative Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican and one of 10 in her party to vote to impeach the president. A group of Mr. Trump’s most strident allies in the House is now calling on her to resign from her leadership post.

Ms. Cheney has brushed aside calls to step down, saying she was “not going anywhere” and calling her break with Mr. Trump “a vote of conscience.” She issued a scathing statement the day before the impeachment vote in which she said, “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

Catie wrote that Republicans are scrambling to determine the political consequences of breaking with Mr. Trump after four years of fealty, and whether they would pay a steeper political price for breaking with the president — or for failing to. A yes vote on Wednesday had little short-term political upside for Republicans, Catie told me.

“The House is where you find Trump’s most vocal defenders, and their contention is that they need to hang on with Trump and his brand,” she said. “These are the lawmakers who are now calling on Liz Cheney to resign from her leadership post. In the middle of the conference you have a whole lot of lawmakers who are unsure which way to turn.”

Catie described the fault lines in the House Republican caucus as more distinct than those among Senate Republicans, pitting establishment conservatives versus MAGA conservatives who see most political issues as up-or-down referendums on Mr. Trump. That contest became clearer this week. Some of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach were veterans who had “carved out a bipartisan, centrist brand in their districts, like Fred Upton and John Katko,” Catie said. Others, like the freshman conservatives Peter Meijer and Anthony Gonzalez, used the impeachment vote to make a point early in their careers.

“For a while they were able to cohabitate in harmony, even though there were always these tensions. Their stance was that Trump could defy political gravity and be a powerful enemy, and they didn’t have to question the strategy of total adherence,” Catie said of the dueling groups. “After the riot, it became a question of picking a lane, and there are a lot of lawmakers who don’t know what to pick because they don’t know what the most politically safe lane to be in is.”

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