Politics & Government

McConnell puts a little daylight between himself and White House on Ukraine

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch defender of President Donald Trump, accuses House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of caving to the left and its “impeachment obsession” — yet the Kentucky Republican has carefully put a little distance between himself and the White House.

McConnell has accused Democrats of rushing to judgment on impeachment and politicizing the controversy over Trump’s relations with Ukraine.

But the senator has also made it clear this week that he supported sending security assistance to Ukraine and had pressed various administration officials for several months as the White House opposed its release. And he raised no objection to a Democratic bid to prod the White House to share a whistleblower complaint about Trump with Congress.

Trump’s admission that he asked the Ukrainian president for help in discrediting Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden hastened Democratic efforts to launch a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump.

McConnell leads a Senate with 53 Republicans. Next year, 23 GOP Senate seats are up, while only 12 Democratic seats are in play.

He’s treading a fine line, accusing Democrats Wednesday of looking to impeach Trump “since practically the moment that Secretary Clinton lost the election,” while insisting that the Senate Intelligence Committee is prepared to investigate the matter.

“Senate Republicans support the established proper procedures for considering this whistle blower report,” McConnell said. “And in the meantime, while our friends across the Capitol rush to judgment and dive deeper into their nearly three-year-old impeachment addiction, we’ll stay focused on the American people’s business.”

McConnell said Monday and again Tuesday that he twice raised “the need to keep our commitment to Ukraine” with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and talked about it with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The senator said he also worked closely with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and appropriations chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, to prod the administration.

And his staff, he said, talked with senior officials at the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget.

The White House only released the security aid to Ukraine after members of Congress threatened to withhold billions of dollars from the defense budget, though Trump on Tuesday insisted that he had blocked the nearly $400 million in assistance because European countries had not paid their fair share to support Ukraine.

Yet McConnell said even after Trump’s remarks that he never got an explanation and has “no idea” why the money was held up.

“The good news is it finally happened,” McConnell said, portraying himself as “among those advocating that we needed to stick with our Ukrainian friends.”

McConnell had nothing but praise for the administration, accusing the Obama administration of keeping its distance from Ukraine.

Several hours later, even as he chided Democrats for a “made for TV moment,” McConnell did not object to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, bid to unanimously pass a resolution urging that a whistleblower complaint that alleges Trump made some inappropriate remarks in a call with a foreign leader be released to Congress.

“I agree that the (intelligence director) should make additional information available to the committee,” McConnell said as he thanked the administration for agreeing to release a transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukraine president.

His re-election campaign has sought to use the House investigation to portray Amy McGrath, one of his Democratic challengers, as unwilling to take a stand.

McGrath has called the allegations against Trump a “disgraceful betrayal of the oath of office” that demands “immediate action by Congress,” but she has not called for Trump’s impeachment.

“Her decision to embrace Democrats’ justification for impeachment leaves little room for imagination as to where she likely stands on this nearly three-year-old fixation,” McConnell’s campaign said in a release. “Yet, as her silence on impeachment spills into a third day, Kentuckians deserve to know how much longer it will take until Amy McGrath finally comes clean about her position on her party’s unquenchable desire to reverse its 2016 election defeat.”

Democrats running for the presidential nomination have already made it clear that they’ll blame McConnell if the Senate were to clear Trump after a House impeachment.

Some Democrats have been reluctant in the past to embrace impeachment, noting that the Republican-led Senate could acquit the president, even if the House votes for impeachment. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached by the House, but the Senate voted not to convict either of them.

“I just want to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t end up with an acquittal by Mitch McConnell in the Senate, which it surely would do, and then President Trump would be running saying he had been acquitted by the U.S. Congress,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said at a July Democratic debate. “I believe we have a moral obligation to defeat Donald Trump, he has to be a single term president and we can’t do anything that plays into his hands.”

But former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro drew huge applause when he said the likelihood that McConnell would not indict Trump should not prevent Democrats from taking action.

“If Mitch McConnell is the one that lets him off the hook, we’re going to be able to say ‘Sure, they impeached him but his friend, Moscow Mitch, let him off the hook,’ “ Castro said, using the nickname that Democrats gave McConnell after he repeatedly blocked several bills aimed at thwarting foreign interference in U.S. elections.

Would McConnell elect to hold a trial if the House impeaches Trump? McConnell didn’t answer the question as he returned to his office on Wednesday.

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Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.