US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pointedly not ruled out that he might eventually vote to convict the now twice-impeached President Donald Trump, but he has also blocked a quick Senate impeachment trial.
Minutes after the House voted 232-197 on Wednesday to impeach Trump, McConnell said in a letter to his GOP colleagues that he's not determined whether Trump should be convicted in the Senate's upcoming proceedings.
The House impeachment articles charge that Trump incited insurrection by exhorting supporters who violently attacked the Capitol last week, resulting in five deaths and a disruption of Congress.
"I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate," McConnell wrote.
McConnell's openness was a stark contrast to the support, or at times silence, he's shown during much of Trump's presidency, and to the opposition he expressed rapidly when the House impeached Trump 13 months ago.
McConnell will be Washington's most powerful Republican once Democratic President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, and McConnell's increasingly chilly view of Trump could make it easier for other GOP lawmakers to turn against him.
McConnell's burgeoning alienation from Trump, plus the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him, underscored how the GOP's long, reflexive support and condoning of Trump's actions was eroding.
McConnell also issued a statement saying Congress and the government should spend the next week "completely focused on facilitating a safe inauguration and an orderly transfer of power" to Biden.
He suggested Trump's Senate trial would begin no earlier than January 19 - in effect rejecting a drive by the chamber's Democrats to begin the proceedings immediately so Trump could be ousted from office.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said that unless McConnell reverses himself and agrees to quickly start the trial, it would begin after January 19.
That's a day before Biden is inaugurated as president and about the time Democrats take over majority control of the Senate. The timetable essentially means McConnell is dropping the trial into Democrats' laps.
"Make no mistake, there will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate," Schumer said. He added, "If the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him from running again."
The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority to convict a president, meaning at least 17 Republicans would need to join all 50 Democrats to oust Trump. If Trump were convicted, it would take only a simple majority of the Senate to prohibit Trump, who's mentioned running again in 2024, from holding federal office again.
Earlier on Wednesday, a GOP strategist said McConnell has told people he thinks Trump perpetrated impeachable offences.
McConnell also saw House Democrats' drive to impeach Trump as an opportune moment to distance the GOP from the tumultuous, divisive outgoing president, according to the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
McConnell spoke to major Republican donors last weekend to assess their thinking about Trump and was told that they believed Trump had clearly crossed a line, the strategist said. McConnell told them he was finished with Trump, according to the consultant.
The Democratic-led House approved an impeachment article accusing Trump of inciting insurrection, an unprecedented second impeachment of his clamorous presidency.
Trump exhorted a throng of his followers to march on the Capitol last Wednesday, where they disrupted Congress' formal certification of Biden's win in a riot that left five people dead and produced widespread damage.
McConnell is looking out for his party's long-term future, but moving toward a political divorce from Trump could mean that congressional Republicans will face challenges in GOP primaries.
Thanks to Democratic victories this month in two Georgia runoffs, Democrats are about to take control of the chamber by 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.
Speaking out against impeachment on Wednesday was Senator Lindsey Graham. A once-bitter Trump foe, Graham became one of his closest allies during his presidency, then lambasted him over last week's Capitol invasion but has since spent time with Trump.
Impeaching Trump now would "do great damage to the institutions of government and could invite further violence," Graham said in a statement.
He said Trump's millions of backers "should not be demonised because of the despicable actions of a seditious mob," but he did not specifically defend Trump's actions last week.
Trump has falsely insisted that November's presidential election was stolen from him by fraud. Those allegations have been rejected by state officials of both parties, state and federal courts and members of his own administration.
Australian Associated Press