WASHINGTON – In the middle of an impeachment trial that threatened to upend his presidency, a confident Donald Trump gathered two dozen Republican senators on the South Lawn of the White House for an unlikely celebration.
Touting the completion of his new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, Trump called out the senators one by one as “great,” “my friend from the beginning” and – perhaps his highest compliment of all – a “big fixture” on TV.
“Maybe I’m being just nice to them because I want their vote,” Trump said to a murmur of laughter from the lawmakers, who hours later returned to their desks in the Senate to hear the day’s arguments in a trial to decide whether to remove him from office. “I don’t want to leave anybody out.”
For a president who came to power eschewing Washington politics, Trump ran a textbook insider counteroffensive to the impeachment trial, allies and political veterans said. From courting vulnerable senators facing reelection to focusing on the economy, trade and foreign policy, the White House mostly avoided the confusion and confrontation that has plagued other pivotal moments of Trump’s tumultuous presidency.
Trump was guided by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, whose steady maneuvering and relentless calls for patience in closed-door meetings with his colleagues kept the Republican caucus almost entirely intact.
Trump and McConnell viewed party unity as critical not only to the president’s reelection in November but also to retaining the GOP majority in the Senate because it would allow them to deligitamize the effort as partisan. Trump praised the unanimity among House Republicans who voted to oppose impeachment in December, and aides said he wanted the same outcome in the Senate.
In the end, the trial fizzled, but Trump also did not secure a unanimous result. Democrats fell far short of the 67 votes needed to remove the president from office. The Senate voted 52-48 to acquit Trump on the charge that abused his power and 53-47 on the charges that he obstructed Congress. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who has had an adversarial relationship with Trump for years, was the sole Republican who voted to convict Trump on one of the charges – abuse of power.
From the beginning, no one expected the GOP-controlled Senate to remove the president on charges that he abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation into political rival and former Vice President Joe Biden. But Trump and McConnell mostly avoided new drama during the third presidential impeachment trial in the nation’s history, and the likelihood the president would be removed became more remote with each day.
Republicans said the White House approach mirrored a strategy embraced by President Bill Clinton during his impeachment in 1999 as he fended off charges that he lied about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. Others said the trial benefited from the Trump-McConnell relationship, which strengthened when McConnell secured the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 despite allegations of sexual assault.
The Kavanaugh drama “also featured its tumultuous moments but turned out to be a huge win for the Republicans,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP consultant with close ties to the Senate Republican leader. “McConnell has this amazing talent for calming people down and in creating very defensible positions.”
Setting the table
Soon after announcing she would vote to acquit Trump, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, walked off the Senate floor Tuesday to explain how she reached that decision.
Facing a tough reelection, Collins said she started the trial by reviewing her notes from the Clinton trial, which unfolded in her first term. She wanted Trump’s trial to look like Clinton’s. And by joining forces with Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Romney she had the leverage to make that happen.
“That’s when I went to (McConnell) and said that I felt we should have the same kind of schedule, including an up or down vote on witnesses,” Collins said. “That’s how that provision got into the resolution” to create more expansive rules for the trial.
For McConnell and Trump, work on the trial began long before the opening arguments.
McConnell sought to craft rules that would allow centrists such as Collins to argue they were giving the impeachment charges a full vetting and not burying them in a “sham trial,” as some critics suggested. McConnell agreed to expand the trial schedule and allow evidence gathered by the House to be automatically considered in the trial.
McConnell, the wily six-term Senate veteran from Kentucky, also worked to shut down support within the GOP for calling witnesses.
Some Republicans, including Trump, initially wanted to summon witnesses such as Biden’s son, Hunter, who they felt would help exonerate the president, or at least fling mud at Democrats. McConnell warned that opening the door to witnesses would introduce uncertainties and lead to “mutually assured destruction” for both parties. That argument was reinforced for Republicans when The New York Times reported Jan. 26 that former top national security aide John Bolton heard Trump connect his desire for a Ukrainian probe into Biden to nearly $400 million in U.S. aid he was withholding from Kyiv.
In perhaps the most climatic vote of the trial, the Senate voted Jan. 31 against hearing from witnesses. McConnell and Trump had survived their first major test.
No witnesses:Collins, Romney want witnesses but Senate says no
On the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump’s Jan. 29 trade event culminated a months-long outreach campaign than began in September when House Democrats opened their impeachment inquiry into his interactions with Ukraine.
The charm offensive, including movie nights at the White House and personal phone calls, was not aimed at wavering Republicans like Collins or Alexander but rather lawmakers up for reelection such as Sens. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who would benefit from Trump’s help and had been cautious in their remarks about the pressure campaign against Ukraine.
McSally and Ernst both attended the trade event, and were recognized by Trump.
White House aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said Trump long assumed the Democratic-run House would vote to impeach and had been developing strategies to get through the Senate trial for months.
Sticking to script
When the Senate trial got fully underway on Jan. 22, Trump was 4,000 miles away in Switzerland announcing that the U.S. would join a initiative to plant one trillion trees.
The global effort, intended to offset carbon emissions, met with skepticism from climate advocates over its impact. But for Trump, those arguments were beside the point.
Between the time of his return from the World Economic Forum in Davos and his acquittal, Trump unveiled a Middle East peace plan, hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, signed the USMCA trade deal to replace NAFTA, attended a manufacturing event in Michigan and delivered his third State of the Union.
Though Trump often discussed the impeachment at those and other events, he always framed the trial as a contrast to his own efforts on the economy, trade and foreign policy.
“You know we are having probably the best years that we’ve ever had in the history of our country, and I just got impeached. Can you believe these people?” Trump said to thunderous applause during a Jan. 30 rally in Iowa.
“No, that’s not going to work,” he predicted. “Watch. Just watch.”
By trying to shift the focus to day-in, day-out White House events, Trump appeared to embrace Clinton’s approach in 1999. During his trial, Clinton hosted events on the economy, met with the Palestinian Authority’s Yasser Arafat and traveled to Jordan. Days before his acquittal, news outlets in Washington began reporting that then first lady Hillary Clinton was exploring a run for a Senate seat in New York – a seat she would win nearly two years later.
“They ran a sophisticated, Clinton-like approach,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign official.
What Trump didn’t do during the trial was almost as notable as what he did: He didn’t attack wavering Republicans like Collins and Romney. Though Trump still regularly upbraids the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for casting a key vote against him on health care in 2017, he tweeted only once about Collins during the trial, asserting that she was doing an “incredible job” as Maine’s senior senator.
Trump also abandoned his off-the-cuff question-and-answer sessions with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House.
Alexander said Trump conducted himself “appropriately.”
“He didn’t call me. As far as I know, he wasn’t saying things that were influencing the trial, or at least if they were, I didn’t notice them,” Alexander said.
A source familiar with planning ahead of the trial who was not authorized to speak about internal deliberations said Trump’s relative silence was no accident. McConnell, the source said, told Trump to lay off any of the Republican senators who would decide his fate, even if he didn’t like their remarks.
That discipline went out the window after the vote, when Trump repeatedly attacked Romney for his historic vote. The Utah Republican became the first senator in history to vote to convict a president of his own party, and that made him an instant target for the White House. In its first statement following the acquittal, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham described Romney as a “failed Republican presidential candidate” in a statement after the vote.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was elected to the Senate in 2018 from Utah.
“This verdict is ours to render,” Romney said on the Senate floor hours before his historic vote. “The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a ‘high crime and misdemeanor.’ Yes, he did.”
White House officials framed the response to the trial as a “group effort” led by Trump himself, who pressed his case with lawmakers in informal chats, group meetings, and discreet phone calls. The officials acknowledged they gave McConnell a wide berth to organize and run the trial, but said their people stayed involved.
“At the end of the day,” one administration official said, “it was the president who was his primary defender.”
Patience and discipline
When the report about Bolton’s book published, senators huddled behind closed doors in McConnell’s office for 90 minutes. They emerged without clarity on how to proceed in the face of growing Democratic demands to haul Bolton before the Senate. The former aide appeared to offer himself up, saying he would testify if subpoenaed.
Some centrist Republicans, including Romney, were sending signals that they would be open to joining Democrats in that request. With a thin, 53-47 majority in the Senate, McConnell could afford only three Republican defections on any of his votes.
As he walked out of McConnell’s office, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., put his hand on a reporter’s shoulder and smiled when asked about Romney and the others.
“I think on any of those senators, you should ask them how they’re going to come down,” he said noncommittally before walking away.
Over the next few days, McConnell managed to calm his restive caucus by preaching patience and playing for time.
A source familiar with at least one of the internal meetings said McConnell encouraged members to “take a deep breath” and focus on the White House’s defense that was playing out day after day on the floor. McConnell told the senators that they were taking part in a “fair and thorough” trial and suggested that they keep their eye on the ultimate prize: Preserving their majority.
The approach appeared to work. When no additional Bolton bombshells dropped, it became clear within days that Democrats didn’t have the vote for witnesses. Only two Republicans joined Democrats on the vote, Romney and Collins.
“McConnell is the big winner,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist. “He held together a fractious caucus despite the remarkably tantalizing Bolton reporting.”
Trump’s approval increased
When Alan Dershowitz was initially named to the president’s legal team last month, the emeritus Harvard law professor played down his position as not “full-fledged” and “limited.” In the end, Dershowitz offered a legal theory that became a turning point.
Breaking with a position he held in the 1990s, Dershowitz told the Senate that Democrats did not make an adequate case for impeachment because they could not point to a crime the president committed. The position, which put a legal frame around a message Trump had been sounding for months, was panned by other legal scholars who describe impeachment as a political exercise.
Despite the blowback, Dershowitz’s position – or iterations of it – permeated Republican talking points and provided an escape hatch for on-the-fence Republicans who disliked Trump’s actions but decided they fell short of the standard for removal.
“It was wrong for him to ask a foreign government to investigate a political rival,” Collins said on the floor Tuesday as she explained her decision to acquit Trump. “I do not believe that the House has met its burden of showing that the president’s conduct, however flawed, warrants the extreme step of immediate removal from office.”
The embrace of the argument underlined another important point in the trial: Not all of Trump’s win was due to brilliant strategy by McConnell or anyone else.
Another lucky break for the GOP: Neither the impeachment nor the trial did much to change public attitudes about the president.
If anything, the trial appeared to work in the president’s favor. A Gallup poll released days before the impeachment vote, Trump’s approval rose to 49%, its highest point since he took office in 2017. Gallup said the president gained support from both Republican and independent voters. Other polls showed little change at all.
With less than ten months to go from this year’s presidential election, that kind of support made it unlikely that many Republicans would defy the president .
As he reflected on the trial, Alexander said hebelieves Trump learned from the episode. Maybe, Alexander said, the trial was punishment enough.
“I would hope that the president would look at this whole proceeding, and realize it’s not appropriate to make a call to the president of another country, and ask him to investigate your leading political opponent,” said Alexander, who is retiring this year.
“You know, we all learn lessons as we go through life. Presidents make mistakes. Senators make mistakes,” he said. “Hopefully we learn from those things.”
Contributing: Susan Page, Christal Hayes, Bart Jansen