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GOP senators warn McConnell could face backlash if he votes to convict Trump

Posted January 20, 2021 9:48 p.m. EST

— A faction of Senate Republicans has a warning for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Stick with former President Donald Trump during his impeachment trial.

McConnell, who is the longest-serving Senate Republican leader in history, has long had strong support within the Senate GOP Conference. But some say if the GOP leader votes to convict Trump, his backing will quickly wane.

"If he does, I don't know if he can stay as leader," said one senior GOP senator who said several of his colleagues held similar views and asked not to be named discussing sensitive internal politics.

Other GOP senators were equally as blunt.

"No, no, no," Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and Trump ally, told CNN when asked if he could support McConnell if he voted to convict Trump, calling such a vote a "dangerous precedent" and adding: "I don't even think we should be having a trial."

McConnell has not said how he would vote in the impeachment trial, telling his colleagues and associates that he would keep an open mind and listen to the arguments presented when the trial gets underway. But he has privately contended that Trump's actions were at least impeachable -- and has made no secret about his disdain with the former President's actions in the run-up to the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol where pro-Trump insurrections tried to stop the congressional certification of President Joe Biden's win.

"The mob was fed lies," McConnell said Tuesday on the floor. "They were provoked by the President and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like. But we pressed on."

After 10 House Republicans broke ranks to join every Democrat to impeach Trump last week on a charge of inciting an insurrection, a number of Republican senators are taking a similar posture as McConnell -- saying they're truly undecided and will listen to the arguments -- a key sign that they could very well be swayed by the position the GOP leader ultimately takes.

Yet in the House, a group of Trump loyalists are seeking to strip Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney of her GOP leadership post for supporting impeachment, a predicament some Republican senators privately believe could hound McConnell if he seeks to end Trump's political career.

McConnell, who has aligned himself with Trump's agenda for the past four years and was responsible for helping him reshape the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court, has had little interaction with Trump in recent weeks after the former President grew increasingly isolated by his efforts to overturn the elections.

Republicans who know McConnell well believe he will take the temperature of the Senate GOP Conference and ultimately make a decision based in part on the views of his colleagues and the mood of the country when it comes time to cast the key vote.

And some Trump loyalists say if McConnell and at least 16 of his GOP colleagues join 50 Democrats to convict the ex-President, they'll see a major backlash from the party's base that will thwart their hopes of winning back the Senate majority next year.

"What good comes from impeaching a guy in Florida?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a friend of Trump's who spoke at length with the former President the night before Biden's inauguration. "I think if any Republican-leader type who embraces that is doing a lot of damage to the party."

Graham, a South Carolina Republican, argued that the GOP needs Trump on its side to be successful next year.

"For the party to move forward, we got to move the party with Donald Trump," Graham said in an interview. "There's no way to be a successful Republican Party without having President Trump working with all of us and all of us working with him. That's just a fact. And I think we got a decent chance of coming back in 2022. But we can't do it without the President."

Not everyone agrees -- and some Republicans are clearly signaling they are ready to bar Trump from ever seeking office again after convicting him in the trial.

"Such unlawful actions cannot go without consequence," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican of Alaska, said of Trump's actions.

McConnell's office declined to comment. But the GOP leader's closest allies insist it's unclear where he's headed.

Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership team, said he doesn't believe McConnell has made a decision about how he'd vote on conviction.

"He's said a number of times in my hearing that he has genuinely not made up his mind and would wait to see what is presented," Cornyn said of the GOP leader.

Sen. Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican who was the lone GOP senator who voted to convict Trump in 2020, said McConnell has told his colleagues: "You should vote your conscience," adding that the GOP leader "has not in any way tried to pressure folks to go one way or another."

"We're asked to apply impartial justice," Romney said. "We're not asked to apply impartial justice unless it hurts your party. And so my responsibility and I believe that of each of us is to do what we swear on oath to do. And the consequences of that are difficult to predict."

Other Republicans are staking out a firmer ground -- including Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who led the failed effort to overturn Biden's electoral win in Arizona on January 6.

"I don't think we should be focusing on the Democrats' political retribution," Cruz said when asked about McConnell keeping the option open of convicting Trump.

Freshman Sen. Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican who, like Cruz, voted to overturn Biden's wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania after the riot, argued that the GOP needed to stay united during the trial.

"I'm not for the trial," Tuberville said. "You're going to impeach a guy who's not even in town anymore?"

Asked what it would mean for the party if Republicans joined Democrats to convict Trump, Tuberville said: "It wouldn't be good. The whole thing is about a team, and if you start separating the team, then it just tears it up."

While many GOP senators are undecided, it's clear that McConnell's vote remains the most influential.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, said many Republican senators "will be influenced by him and they're going to look to him for his guidance."

But he discounted that McConnell's vote would have much of an impact on the party's electoral prospects.

"The party's not going to be defined by his one vote," Cramer said. "Out in the states people are going to judge based on how their senator votes. Not on how Kentucky's senior senator votes."

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