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GOP Strategist On Senate's Preparations For Impeachment Vote

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That's right. The New York Times is reporting that privately, McConnell has come around to the idea of impeachment. The Times quotes people familiar with McConnell's thinking. Well, we're going to hear next from GOP strategist Scott Jennings, who is familiar with McConnell's thinking from having worked for him over the years.

Mr. Jennings, welcome.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Thank you. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Why might Mitch McConnell now be on board with impeachment?

JENNINGS: Well, his statement this afternoon made clear that he hadn't decided what to do. But I think, generally speaking, if you just look at the facts of what's happened over the last few weeks and certainly the last few days, a reasonable person could come to the conclusion that if this is not impeachable, then what is?

KELLY: How much of this is politics? Because we know that Senator McConnell has always got his eyes focused on the politics. This could help the party, presumably. If Trump, who has proven toxic, is out of the way, the GOP could move forward.

JENNINGS: Well, I certainly think politicians make decisions based on some politics. But I also think in this moment, if I know Senator McConnell, and I do, he'd probably say something like, there are times when you can wet your finger and stick it up in the wind and see which way the wind is blowing, and there's times to just do what's right. And I think you're going to see some Republicans vote their conscience in that way. Again, he has said today he doesn't know what he's going to do yet. But he went to the floor last week and directly said that the vote to confirm the Electoral College was the most important vote he had cast in 36 years. And he's seen a lot of things and issues come and go. So the gravity of that statement, I think, today means more than ever.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I want to underscore, it does look as though the majority of Republicans in the House are going to vote against impeachment. But I wonder, is another possible factor here that this is personal for Senator McConnell and for other lawmakers in a way that it was not with impeachment Round 1? Congress was physically attacked last week. The U.S. Senate chamber was vandalized.

JENNINGS: Well, yes. I mean, it must be personal. They were attacked. Their staff was barricading themselves behind closed doors, using furniture to keep the mob out. I mean, I think we were, you know, just a few other different decisions on which way to turn in the Capitol away from members of Congress encountering very, very violent people. It could have been far worse, and it was already horrific as it stands.

But I also think that Leader McConnell and other members of Congress take their duties under the Constitution very seriously. And the president tried to prevent the Congress from performing its constitutional duties, and he directly tried to prevent the vice president of the United States from doing that as well. So I think there's a - you know, that the Capitol was physically attacked, but also the Constitution was attacked because the Congress had a job to do, and the president tried to stop them from doing it.

KELLY: He says, as you noted, that he has not made up his mind. But if Senator McConnell were to back impeachment, how big a game-changer would that be...

JENNINGS: Well, I mean, he's...

KELLY: ...In terms of turning the tide?

JENNINGS: ...One of the most credible voices in our party, and he has obviously been a leader in the party for a very long time. And he was one of the chief implementers of President Trump's agenda. So I think it'd be a rather seismic decision if he decided to go in that direction.

KELLY: Although, you need a two-thirds majority of senators present to convict. Do you see signs that enough other Republican senators might break rank?

JENNINGS: I don't know. I think it would be close. But I also think that the Senate's different than the House in that a lot of the people in the Senate aren't in cycle every two years. These House members are on the ballot functionally all the time. But that's not true for the senators.

KELLY: Yeah. So the dynamic in the Senate is a little bit different. Maybe senators might also be less afraid of a primary challenge from the right.

JENNINGS: Yeah. I think they tend to be a little more self-confident (laughter) than the new members of the House.

KELLY: So, big picture, how do you think this ends? Whatever might happen with a Senate trial, does President Trump disappear off into the sunset? What happens to the GOP?

JENNINGS: I don't think so. But I do think that the Republican Party has to wrestle with the limits of Trumpism. Even setting aside the events of last Wednesday, the last several elections have shown the limits of Trump's electoral strength. And you throw what happened last Wednesday on top of it, and now those limits are even lower. So I would say the party needs to do some soul-searching about what it needs and has to be in order to be a functionally successful party at the national level.

KELLY: That is Republican strategist Scott Jennings. He served as an adviser to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr. Jennings, many thanks.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.