President Donald Trump's serial self-inflicted crises are testing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP senators he'll be counting on in an impeachment trial that lawmakers in both parties now see as all but inevitable.
Trump has forced Republicans in Congress to bounce between chiding and defending the president in quick succession in recent weeks over, among other topics, his abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, his aborted decision to hold the next G-7 summit at his own golf resort, and a parade of damaging witness testimony in House impeachment proceedings.
McConnell, who usually steps gingerly when talking about the president, took the rare step Tuesday of criticizing Trump by name for his decision on Syria, and he called his description of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry as a lynching "an unfortunate choice of words."
Then he pulled the rug out from under Trump's claim that he had the majority leader's assurance that the July telephone call with Ukraine's president, where Trump asked for a probe of political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter was "innocent."
"We've not had any conversations on that subject," McConnell told reporters. Asked if the president had lied, McConnell said, "You'll have to ask him. I don't recall any conversations with the president about the phone call."
McConnell and the Senate Republicans, with rare exceptions, remain a bulwark of Trump's defense. They are united in ripping the closed-door hearings used by Democrats in the House impeachment inquiry even as they hold back from a giving a full-throated defense of his actions regarding Ukraine that are at the heart of the investigation.
When McConnell was asked why more Republicans weren't defending the president, he pivoted to attacking Democrats.
"I'm willing to talk about the process in the House," McConnell said. "I think it's grossly unfair. I think the president has legitimate complaints about the process."
A recent swell of public support for impeachment has taken a toll on both Trump and Republicans, as polls have suggested McConnell's 53-47 majority in the Senate could be in play in the 2020 elections. In a CNN poll out this week, half of Americans said the president should be impeached and removed. It was the latest of several recent surveys showing similar results.
McConnell has effectively served as Trump's firewall on Capitol Hill, but he also has long pursued a political strategy that isn't wholly tied to Trump. He's touted the 2020 Senate elections more as a fight to save the country from socialism than a bid to save Trump's accomplishments from attack.
The majority leader's chief complaints with Trump continue to be primarily focused on foreign policy. Following up a sharply worded opinion piece last week opposing Trump's abandonment of the Kurds in Syria -- without mentioning the president's name -- McConnell on Tuesday called on the Senate to dissuade Trump from doing something similar in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There's no sign that McConnell would pull his support for Trump, but he's leading 52 other Senate Republicans who are tired of having to explain the president's controversies -- and eyeing next year's Senate and House elections with rising unease.
I think I've said enough about the president's tweets as of late," Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican and frequent Trump critic, said when asked about Trump's "lynching" rhetoric.
Some members of McConnell's leadership team aren't hiding their own exasperation, even as they join House Republicans in criticizing the closed door impeachment hearings.
Asked if Trump is in trouble, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri simply responded, "I don't know."
He dismissed questions about whether the president should stop talking and tweeting about the inquiry.
"As far as I know, he has never asked me for any advice, and I don't expect him to ask for advice on this," Blunt said.
Democrats argue that Republicans have plenty of reasons to be concerned. At a closed hearing Tuesday, Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor testified that a senior diplomat told him in early September that Trump made U.S. security aid to Ukraine entirely dependent on a public promise to investigate Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory regarding alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
"There's substance here," Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, about Taylor's opening statement. "The number of witnesses who are coming in and contradicting the president is significant," Wyden said. "Around here, that takes a toll on your standing."
But GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, an adviser to McConnell, said no one should expect significant defections in the Republican ranks, and not because they are fearful of becoming a target of Trump's derogatory tweets.
"Republicans I don't believe think it's in their long-term policy interest to divide the party in order to elect Democrats," Cornyn told reporters. "That's what I think the calculation is."
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