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What's Really Behind McConnell's Odd Impeachment Behavior?

By Joe Rothstein — January 1, 2020

When Donald Trump named Elaine Chao to head the U.S. Department of Transportation, the potential for conflict of interest was obvious to anyone who cared about such things. Not only is Chao married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, she also is a member of a wealthy family that owns and operates the Foremost Group, a shipping company with extensive operations in China and close ties to many decision-makers in China’s government and communist party.

Nevertheless, Chao breezed through her confirmation process with little opposition. Being the majority leader’s wife coated her with a thick layer of political Teflon. (York Times headline: “Elaine Chao Gets Cozy Reception at Confirmation Hearing”). The only conflict mentioned was her financial stake and board of director membership in a company that produces construction materials. No problem, said Chao. She promised to divest herself of that ownership and business connection within a year.

While many other members of Trump’s cabinet have come and gone over the past three years, run out of town, so to speak, because of highly questionable, if not illegal activities, Chao has sailed on with little national attention. The fact that she ignored her promise to sell her construction company stock until just a few months ago, and only after a story about it appeared in the Wall Street Journal, raised few eyebrows. Her attempt to include members of her shipping company family in her party for an official trip to China was barely a news blip, even though it bore little difference to Trump’s using the White House to hawk his hotels and other properties.

Chao’s father has given McConnell and wife $25 million, helping to raise McConnell’s net worth by nearly $60 million since he was elected. Think about that for a moment. In his Senate years, on a senator’s salary, McConnell has somehow managed to become one of the richest people in America.

If none of this has seemed particularly newsworthy so far, why bring it up now? Why? Because now Mitch McConnell holds in his hands a power few people in public life ever have had—the power to keep a president in office, or remove him. The Senate’s Republican majority appears to have ceded to him the right to decide whether there even will be a constitutionally mandated trial, whether witnesses will be called, whether documented evidence will be presented. For impeachment, he could insist on total resistance, making the outcome fully partisan, or he could give some politically vulnerable Republican senators a pass to vote for removal if that would help them back home, or he could almost certainly rustle up 20 Republican senators to join the Democrats and banish Trump from the White House, if he felt that was necessary to keep Republican control after November’s elections.

By any standard of fairness and justice, McConnell should recuse himself from the entire impeachment process, not be in position to dictate the outcome.

Impeachment is a trial. He’s the foreman of the jury and his wife works for the accused. How is that not an obvious conflict of interest? His family’s business interests are intimately tied to the outcome of the senate trial. If Trump is convicted, Chao could well lose her job, and with it the ability to regulate and make transportation policy, including maritime shipping policy. How is that not a conflict of interest?

It's bizarre that the Republicans in the Senate are behaving like see-no-evil monkeys ceding impeachment power to such a conflicted colleague. Equally bizarre is how McConnell is using that power to brush off as a minor time management problem one of the most solemn constitutional duties entrusted to a senate leader. He’s not even pretending to take impeachment seriously. Partisan? Yes, everyone expects that. But irresponsible? Even when it’s needless? Even when he knows he can manage the outcome any way that suits him?

When McConnell says he’s working with the accused to rig the trial, that’s not just a ham-handed pol talking. He didn’t accumulate this authority and survive this long by being a clown. He can get his desired result without putting on a clown suit in constitutional church.It makes you wonder whether there’s something more to see here.

Let’s divert our attention for a moment to Rudy Giuliani. Yes, Rudy Giuliani, and an interview he had recently with Fox News. When asked about his relationship with Donald Trump, Giuliani said, "I've seen things written like he's going to throw me under the bus. When they say that, I say he isn't, but I have insurance." Insurance? Giuliani has something on Trump that could bring him down politically, financially, or put Trump in jail? That’s the implication. I would guess that Trump, seeing that interview, quickly recalled some “insurance,” that he has on Giuliani, too. That’s what goes on in a world where people live close to the edge, and sometimes fall off it. (Include here the extensive body of suspicion that Putin has “insurance” that is keeping Trump obedient).

Which brings us back to McConnell and Chao. U.S. intelligence agencies (and Trump) know far more about the Chao family’s relationship with the Chinese government than the U.S. public is ever likely to know. Her father’s ties go back to the earliest days of the People’s Republic. The Chaos build ships in China’s yards and move cargo worldwide. This is a cozy, highly profitable arrangement. And, from the standpoint of U.S. business and security, a peculiar one that deserves more attention. Would it get that attention if McConnell’s loyalty to Trump was shaky?

On the other hand, as majority leader McConnell has had more access to information about Trump’s finances and background from U.S. intelligence agencies than hardly anyone outside the Trump family. Trump is in multiple courts these days desperately trying to keep a lid on his financial history and other aspects of his sordid past. This is not the behavior of a person who believes he has nothing to hide. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that McConnell and Trump could have “insurance” on each other.

We know why Trump is Trump. But what’s up with McConnell? He could easily go through the motions of responsible impeachment management and dictate any outcome he wants. Why is he deliberately handling it like an inexperienced rookie? On the eve of the trial, it’s important to ask. I hope someone does. And gets some answers.

(Joe Rothstein's latest political thriller, "The Salvation Project," is now for sale at all on-line book sites and most independent book stores).

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.