WASHINGTON — On a Tuesday afternoon a week into President Trump’s impeachment trial, Senator Mitch McConnell could see his carefully laid plan to deliver a swift acquittal veering off the rails.
An explosive report detailing how John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, had confirmed a central allegation against Mr. Trump had roiled the Capitol and upended his push to block new witnesses, and if Mr. McConnell did not corral restive Republicans into submission, the trial could be blown wide open.
“We can be smart or we can be stupid,” Mr. McConnell warned his rank and file during a closed-door lunch of halibut, fried chicken and pecan pie in the Capitol, steps from the Senate floor where the trial was to convene shortly. “The choice will be up to us.”
Republicans ultimately opted, as they almost invariably do, to stick with Mr. McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and block Democrats’ attempts to allow new evidence to be considered. All but one of them voted on Wednesday to acquit Mr. Trump of both of the charges against him.
The story of how Mr. McConnell held Republicans together — even in the face of stunning revelations about the president’s conduct and uneasiness in his party about Mr. Trump’s actions — reflects how a master Senate tactician deployed his command of procedure and keen political instincts to lock down a process that posed an existential threat to the president. In doing so, he may have cemented the president’s hold on his office and provided a defiant campaign message to propel him to re-election, uniting the party around a figure who brooks no dissent and dealing a death blow to Democrats’ hopes of removing him.
“If this was all about politics, and it was, at least at the moment I think it is fair to conclude that we won and they lost,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview on Thursday in his Capitol office, before he headed to the White House, where he was effusively thanked by the president and received a standing ovation in the East Room.
A Year of Preparation
Democrats contend that the victory is hollow, and that they won something as well, showing the public that Senate Republicans — including several who are facing re-election this year in politically competitive states — were unwilling to challenge Mr. Trump on either his behavior or his blithe dismissal of Congress’s right to oversee the executive branch.
“What we feel is we created Pyrrhic victory for them,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, said in an interview. “This trial is regarded by most Americans as not a real trial, a sham. The acquittal has virtually no value because American know it wasn’t fair.”
But it evidently has great value to the president and to Mr. McConnell, who had spent nearly a year preparing for it. From the instant that Democrats assumed power in the House last January, denying that they had any intention of impeaching Mr. Trump, Mr. McConnell, a six-term Kentuckian and the longest-serving Senate Republican leader, directed his staff to quietly dig into the history of impeachments and consult with outside experts.
“We thought they would finally work themselves up to doing this on something,” Mr. McConnell said. “It has been threatened endlessly. We needed to come up to speed on what actually happens, and that began in earnest last fall.”
So when Mr. McConnell fielded a phone call from Mr. Trump days before Christmas, he was ready. Stung by the House vote to impeach him on two charges, the president reached out to the majority leader from his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Fla., throwing out ideas about how to handle his coming Senate trial.
Mr. McConnell had a reassuring response for the third president ever to face removal by the Senate, urging Mr. Trump to trust him to manage the confrontation.
“What I have consistently said to him is I think I know more about the Senate than you do, which he usually concedes,” Mr. McConnell recalled, saying he told the president to keep public commentary about impeachment to a minimum. “My consistent advice to him with regard to this subject was to avoid it — and for the most part, for the most part, he did.”
Throughout the process, Mr. McConnell consistently refused to say how he viewed the president’s conduct, even as other Republicans eventually said that Mr. Trump’s actions were wrong, inappropriate and even shameful.
“I say things I choose to say,” he said when pressed Thursday.
Yet that reticence did not dampen Mr. McConnell’s zeal for beating back the impeachment push. Interviews with more than two dozen senators and top aides reflected how the impeachment fight that came to a close on Wednesday was never about whether Mr. Trump would be the first president to be removed from office — both sides knew he would not. It was instead about how Republicans and Democrats would arrive at the inevitable outcome, and how much damage they would inflict on one another, the president and the Senate in the process.
Mr. McConnell set out to create the framework for a trial that his members could get behind, that could withstand the possibility of compromising new information emerging and that would deliver the White House a quick but credible verdict of “not guilty.” It went far from perfectly for Republicans — among other setbacks, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, voted “guilty” on the charge of abuse of power, depriving Mr. Trump of the absolute party loyalty he coveted — but Mr. McConnell reached his desired end.
“He is very good at what he does,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a close ally of Mr. McConnell.
By October, Mr. McConnell recognized that a trial was a near certainty. An anonymous White House whistle-blower had accused Mr. Trump of trying to cheat in the 2020 election by seeking to condition crucial military aid to Ukraine on the country announcing investigations into his political rivals, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden. The Democratic-led House was plunging ahead over solid Republican opposition.
Mr. McConnell tasked Andrew Ferguson, his chief counsel, with mapping out a full trial strategy. He spoke with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, counseling him that the White House needed to take the impeachment process seriously and study how President Bill Clinton’s White House built a legal and communications defense team in 1998.
Then he began to educate his colleagues, delivering a PowerPoint presentation to his members on what an impeachment trial would look like, introducing senators with a self-conscious matter-of-factness to what he called the “Clinton model.” He and his advisers quickly determined that the question of calling witnesses would be the focal point of the trial fight and they seized on the ground rules governing Mr. Clinton’s 1999 trial. In that proceeding, the modern precedent, the debate over witnesses came only after the House and the White House made opening arguments and senators posed written questions.
That approach would help address a problem Mr. McConnell saw coming: likely demands by Democrats to include new testimony in the trial. In November, Mr. McConnell began sharing with Republicans his fear that votes to allow witnesses could create messy interparty disputes with the White House that would prolong the trial for weeks or more, without changing the outcome.
He warned his fellow Republicans that Democrats would use the trial to force senators in tough re-election fights to take difficult votes as part of their drive to recapture the Senate.
And Senate Democrats, led by Mr. Schumer were plotting just such a strategy. With no hope of reaching a two-thirds threshold for removing a president from office, they had no illusions about ousting Mr. Trump.
The ‘Legal Eagles’
But Democrats wanted to make Republicans — especially those facing voters in November — cringe in defending the conduct of the president and force them to go on the record absolving Mr. Trump despite compelling evidence from the House that he had abused his power and sought to hide his actions from Congress.
As the Thanksgiving recess approached, Mr. McConnell deputized a group of the senators who were lawyers to help him sell the plan. The “Legal Eagles,” as the group was informally called, included Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, and John Cornyn of Texas and their role was to educate their colleagues in constitutional law. Mr. Cruz eventually set up a war room for the trial in a rented space off Capitol Hill, staffed by members of his congressional office and political organization.
Mr. Schumer had his gaze down the road as well. In November and again in December, Mr. Schumer summoned to his office a dozen moderate Democrats known to have relationships with Republicans to make a request: They should feel out their Republican counterparts in the chamber on the Ukraine matter and the looming trial, and report back. The overtures went nowhere. There would not be another of the famous bipartisan Senate “gangs” to try to find a compromise outcome.
One more twist would come before lawmakers departed for Christmas. After the House impeachment vote, Ms. Pelosi announced that she would delay sending the articles needed to formally spur the Senate trial until she was assured that Mr. McConnell would conduct a fair one. Democrats now say they were also worried that Mr. McConnell might use the holiday recess crunch to seek a quick dismissal of the accusations.
He was not planning to do so, but also did not intend to relinquish his grip on the proceedings or bend to Ms. Pelosi. When he spoke with Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, on a call to celebrate the passage of a bipartisan omnibus spending bill, he offered a quiet warning.
“I’ve been in politics long enough to know you should never say never, but let me say this,” Mr. McConnell told Mr. Hoyer. “I will never allow the House of Representatives to dictate rules to the Senate. Never.”
Behind the scenes, Mr. McConnell was trying to nail down the backing of the handful of Republicans who could complicate his careful planning. Four senators had expressed enough qualms about the president to give them leverage to win concessions from Mr. McConnell: Mr. Romney of Utah, the 2012 presidential nominee; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who had in the past bucked Mr. McConnell and the White House; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a veteran politician with plans to retire, and Susan Collins of Maine, a centrist facing the re-election challenge of her career.
In two early January meetings in Mr. McConnell’s office, with Mr. Alexander participating by conference call, the four negotiated a guarantee that the Senate would vote on whether to allow witnesses as it had been done in the Clinton trial.
When Mr. McConnell unveiled his proposed resolution on the eve of the trial, it immediately provoked an uproar. The language guaranteeing a vote on witnesses was there, but so was a provision limiting to two days the 24 hours the House prosecutors and the president’s defense team had for their oral arguments. And the rules said the record of the House impeachment inquiry would not be admitted unless the Senate voted to do so later.
In a private lunch before the trial was to open, Senate Republicans rebelled, saying that the two-day limit was too abbreviated and that the House record had to be admitted to provide the basic evidence in the proceeding. Mr. McConnell and his team quickly backtracked, scrawling last-minute changes in the margins of the resolution moments before the debate began. Senate Republicans adopted it on a party-line vote, after rejecting Democratic attempts to subpoena Mr. Bolton and other witnesses, beginning the trial on a contentious and partisan note.
From the outset, the pace was grinding, with senators unaccustomed to the long hours confined to the chamber. The grueling schedule was no accident. Mr. McConnell had instructed his staff to make it punishing, to exhaust senators and fuel their eagerness to bring it to a quick end.
But as the trial progressed, it remained uncertain whether enough Republicans would break with the party to force the Senate to call witnesses. Mr. McConnell and his lieutenants were increasingly confident that the prosecution’s arguments — often repetitive — were not taking hold and that Republicans were eager to move on.
At the luncheon, Mr. McConnell led his anxious colleagues through a litany of sharp questions about what could go wrong if Republicans buckled and called Mr. Bolton. He kept up the pressure after the trial adjourned later that afternoon, gathering Republicans again, this time in a smaller room with just one door to limit comings and goings. Brandishing a card bearing a whip count, he made it clear that Republicans still lacked the votes to defeat witnesses, an unmistakable message that it was time for them to fall into line.
“I thought they needed to hear it,” he said in the interview. “There were no free passes.”
As he worked to round up votes to block witnesses, Mr. McConnell told wavering Republicans that they were being used as pawns in a Democratic scheme to undermine the courts by embarrassing Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who was presiding over the trial.
Managing ‘Quid Pro Quo’
When Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat running for president, asked whether a chief justice overseeing a trial without witnesses would undermine the courts, Mr. McConnell scrawled a quick note to Ms. Murkowski, who was still undecided on witnesses, to point out the attack.
With his eye on the undecided senators, Mr. Cruz also counseled the White House legal team to avoid arguing that there was no quid pro quo — “a strategic mistake” that might make Mr. Bolton’s testimony seem more relevant to those lawmakers. During questioning, Mr. Cruz helped draft a question, submitted jointly with senators like Ms. Murkowski and Mr. Alexander, that asked Mr. Trump’s legal team whether, if Mr. Bolton testified to the existence of a quid pro quo, it would amount to an impeachable offense.
When Patrick Philbin, a deputy White House counsel, rose to answer, asserting that Mr. Trump had never engaged in a quid pro quo, Mr. Cruz was “a little white-knuckled,” he recalled. But then the answer he was looking for came: Even if there was a quid pro quo, it did not matter.
“I think that answer played a really important part in helping get the votes of both Lamar and Lisa,” Mr. Cruz said later.
By the next day, Ms. Murkowski had come out against witnesses, using as a rationale what she characterized as an attack on Chief Justice Roberts. She followed Mr. Alexander, who said that while Mr. Trump had acted inappropriately, his actions did not merit impeachment. The final vote on witnesses was 51 to 49 and the trial hurtled to its finale, with Mr. Romney’s vote to convict the president as the final twist.
Mr. McConnell shrugged off fierce criticism that he had overseen a sham.
“I didn’t rig anything,” he said. “We had a vote. No vote was prevented. No debate was prevented. These guys didn’t have the votes,” he said of Senate Democrats.
“These guys would win more often if they win more elections,” he said, “and they have the opportunity to do that this year.”