The first crack in Donald Trump’s red wall came on Christmas Eve when not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, except for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who said she was “disturbed” by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s promise of “total coordination” with Donald Trump in his impeachment trial in the Senate. “It’s wrong to pre-judge,” she said of McConnell working “hand-in-glove” with Trump.
Straightforward and conscientious, so press-reluctant her name auto-corrects to “Murrow skis,” the daughter of a former governor breaking publicly with McConnell is like her donning a lampshade and popping open the Champagne on New Year’s Eve. When she opposed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, rather than dramatize her struggle—by contrast to Sen. Susan Collins, who went on about how hard it all was but finally voted as Trump told her to—Murkowski voted “present.” It didn’t change the outcome—Kavanaugh’s approval was in the bag—but by going against Trump and McConnell she stayed true to her conscience, something the rest of her caucus lost in 2016, bearing out Sen. Lindsey Graham’s warning to his party that, by nominating Trump, “We will get destroyed… and we will deserve it.”
Murkowski wouldn’t have gone so far as to be “disturbed” had McConnell not committed one of the few mistakes of his political life in no longer simply doing everything Trump tells him to do, but doing it the way Trump tells him to. McConnell, left to his own devices, wouldn’t have revealed that “Everything I do during this [trial] I’m coordinating with White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position.”
When defending Trump, it must be done loudly and immediately. He keeps score. Trump is driven so mad by impeachment—he claimed not to have been impeached in one of the hundreds of unhinged tweets he’s issued since the two articles were passed in the House—that he not only needed to be assured of acquittal, he had to have it blasted out prematurely to buy him a night or two when Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t disturb his dreams.
Even before Murkowski’s rebuke, McConnell had inched back from the ledge Trump lured him on to. He told Fox & Friends Monday morning that he hadn’t “ruled out” witnesses. He had, of course, calling it an untimely “fishing expedition.” The cagey, sphinx-like McConnell realized too late he shouldn’t listen to Trump, a creature of impulse and immediate gratification. It’s McConnell, not Trump, who’s stacked the federal courts with 175 judges, setting a new indoor record when he got confirmed his seventh “unqualified” nominee: 37-year-old Kentuckian Justin Walker, who lacked any time in a courtroom or practicing law since graduating. The Obama administration and most other administrations have had none.
McConnell has a point that impeachment is a “political process” but not that “there’s not anything judicial about it.” We’re all political and partial: Some people swear by the Mets over the Yankees or Dunkin’ over Starbucks, but no one admits to favoring wrong over right. It’s why we have trials, and as anyone who’s watched Law & Order knows that means witnesses and exhibits, direct testimony and cross-examination, and an impartial judge.
McConnell keeps citing Clinton’s impeachment as precedent for what he’s doing. The 100-to-0 vote in that trial kept open having witnesses—and three were called ultimately called—even though there was already a stack of deposition testimony from the Starr Report. McConnell argued that “every other impeachment has had witnesses,” and that Clinton’s should include at least three.
There might be some holiday sympathy for McConnell. Imagine what Trump would have done had McConnell held the door open for testimony from Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who may be escaping to run for the Senate in Kansas—not to mention former National Security Council chief John Bolton, who saw a “drug deal” going down in the Situation Room. There’s still time before the Jan. 28 deadline to recruit a new primary opponent for McConnell’s 2020 re-election bid.
Before going all in with Trump, McConnell should have talked to those who’ve left his White House, or read the shelf full of books recounting life inside the West Wing and how, no matter how bad we think it is, it’s worse. Former White House Counsel Don McGahn packed up his belongings rather than carry out Trump’s orders to end the Mueller inquiry. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned rather than carry out Trump’s deadly Syria policy. John Kelly predicted impeachment should Trump have only “yes men” like Mulvaney and Pompeo around him. Rex Tillerson never took back calling Trump a “moron.” While Bolton may be exaggerating his superpowers, without his containment of Trump and Trump’s penchant for photo-op summits, North Korea’s beautiful leader might be even closer to leveling Detroit.
If Trump played his cards as well as the majority leader had until now, his casinos would not have gone bankrupt. He might not have made that perfect call and 90 minutes later ordered congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine halted. He wouldn’t have sent Mulvaney out to admit everything and advise everyone to get over bribing a foreign leader, or told Mulvaney to take it back and then disappear. He wouldn’t have Pompeo lie that he wasn’t in on the “perfect” call only to have to deny his denial when the truth came out.
If only McConnell hadn’t blurted out his plans, he could have done everything he said he would with impunity. Now, with Murkowski questioning McConnell throwing his lot in with Trump, he’s lost the first post-impeachment round to Nancy Pelosi. At worst, by holding on to the articles of impeachment, Pelosi chose a slow death over a quick one in the craven Senate. At best, she may get a fairer, if not a fair, trial, a witness or two that if she had waited—and waited—for court rulings to compel their testimony that would have been met with cries of outrage for daring to continue hearings in the midst of an election.
Pelosi has also exposed that when McConnell swears an oath to be impartial at the opening of the trial, in the sight of his Baptist God and Chief Justice John Roberts, he’s either had an unbelievable change of heart, like Saul on the road to Damascus, or he’s perjuring himself.
If we had a functioning Senate, McConnell would have to recuse himself. Alas, with Trump as de facto majority leader, that won’t happen.
Senate Republicans didn’t ask for a spine for Christmas, but Murkowski showed what having one is like. “If it means that I am viewed as one who looks openly and critically at every issue in front of me, rather than acting as a rubber stamp for my party or my president, I am totally good with that,” she said.
And so are we.