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Transcript: Master Strategist

The full episode transcript for Master Strategist.


Article II: Inside Impeachment

Master Strategist

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Friday, October 25th, and here's what's happening.

Lindsey Graham: What's going on is a run-around the impeachment process creating a secret proceeding behind closed doors.

Kornacki: That's Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Thursday introducing a resolution to condemn the House impeachment process.

Graham: That fundamentally, in my view, denies due process. And when you're talkin' about removing the president of the United States, seems to me you'd wanna have a process that is consistent with who we are as Americans.

Kornacki: To co-sponsor of Graham's resolution is the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. He's been speaking out against the inquiry for weeks.

Archival Recording: Are you willing to defend the president in this matter?

Mitch McConnell: I'm willin' to talk about the process in the House. I just did. I think it's grossly unfair. And I think the president has a legitimate complaint about the process.

Kornacki: The Graham/McConnell resolution attacks the process the Democrats are using. But notably, it doesn't say anything about the allegations about President Trump and Ukraine. There has been a general assumption that if the inquiry comes to a Senate trial, that McConnell will use his strategic prowess to protect the president at all costs. But how sure are we about that? And what is his strategy when it comes to impeachment?

Frank Thorp is a producer and off-air reporter covering Congress for NBC News. If you've read the book, Master of the Senate, Robert Caro, it was about Lyndon Johnson. But for our purpose today, Frank will be the master of the Senate. He lives and breathes the Senate, knows all about it. Franks, thanks for joining us.

Frank Thorp: Thanks for having me.

Kornacki: So much attention obviously has been on Mitch McConnell in particular, the majority leader, with the Senate poised at least potentially the play the role of, of holding the trial if the House does impeach Donald Trump. And this week, we've seen now the first concrete action by McConnell, by most Republicans. It involves this, this resolution that Lindsey Graham put forward.

Take us through, first of all, what is in this resolution? Because it sounds to me this is limited to what the Republicans are, are talking about here is the process and not the substance of the complaints against Trump.

Thorp: Yeah, so that's what this resolution does, is, is this resolution basically just attacks the process in the House, exactly what you said. So Senator Graham and, and Senator McConnell teamed up to do this resolution to basically kind of do something. The White House has been kind of putting pressure on Republicans, particularly Senate Republicans to act out and speak out about the process over in the House. And what this does, it's a non-binding resolution. It basically chastises what they say is a non-transparent process over on the House side.

Kornacki: There's some reporting and some commentary out there that says, "This resolution is more significant for what it doesn't say, what it doesn't address than, than for what it does." And, and that this reflects in some way by, by limiting the objections just to the process in the House, not dealing with the substance at all of the Ukraine situation, that this is McConnell showing some, trying to find some way of supporting Trump without defending any of the things he's accused of when it comes to Ukraine. Is that, is that what this is?

Thorp: I, I think so. And I think, you know, we've seen that for the last weeks. McConnell in particular, when pressed on the substance of this investigation about, say, the call between Trump and Zelenskiy, whether or not it was appropriate to ask for him to investigate the Bidens, he doesn't wanna answer those questions.

Also, I mean, they are in, I think, a little bit of legitimate situation, just a little bit of a pickle, where, you know, they know some information, but they don't know it all. And they have a big job. They have to be jurors if there, you know, there's an eventual Senate trial. So they're focusing way more on process right now because, to be honest, they don't wanna answer questions about the substance.

Kornacki: So let's look, sort of, more big picture here at, at McConnell, who he is, how he operates, what that means for any potential Senate trial. You have a really good read on him, obviously, seeing him day-to-day. Folks like me watching this through television mainly, you see him show up at these occasional press conferences.

It is hard, if not impossible, to discern anything from the expression (LAUGH) on his face, the tone of his voice. Is he embracing the idea that's out there, the image that's out there, that he's kind of the master of the, of the dark arts of the Senate?

Thorp: He, he loves that reputation. The, the idea that he is a master strategist in the Senate. And I think that it's going to very much play into how this whole thing works. I mean, McConnell is going to have to thread a needle in terms of setting all of this up. He's gonna have a lotta power in how anything goes if the House were to send over articles of impeachment.

So the thing is, is he is a very calculating politician. Everything that he does has some kind of calculus attached to it. And so when you're looking at what he's doing, or what, what he's saying, or what he's not saying in these situations, you have to very much try to read between the lines. But, I mean, like, he's also a really hard person to read. He'll say one thing. But what he's doing behind the scenes might be completely different.

Kornacki: So let's talk about McConnell and Trump. How would you characterize their, their relationship?

Thorp: It's an interesting one. 'Cause I think that, you know, it's a situation where I think that, that McConnell sees Trump as, he sees him as a means to his legacy, rebuilding the federal judiciary and rebuilding the Supreme Court and getting pieces of legislation through that he wants to get passed.

I think that he's always been a little, you know, skeptical of President Trump. And, you know, he'll speak out in certain moments. I mean, he, we saw that with the Syria situation in, in Turkey. Their relationship is, is a very interesting one in which they have, like, a mutually beneficial kind of acceptance that they need each other.

Kornacki: There was also a moment this week that I, I thought jumped out to me as potentially significant when it comes to McConnell and Trump. And that is that you have Trump, he has been out there saying that, "Hey, Mitch McConnell says my call with Zelenskiy was perfect." And there was a moment this week when reporters asked McConnell about that call.

Archival Recording: The president has said that you told him that his phone call with the Ukrainian president was perfect and innocent. Do you believe that the president was--

McConnell: I don't think--

Archival Recording: --handling this Ukrainian situation perfectly?

McConnell: We've not had any conversations on that subject.

Archival Recording: So he was lying about that?

McConnell: You'll have to ask him. I, I don't recall any conversations with the president about that phone call.

Kornacki: So, I, I mean, Frank, I, I say this seemed really significant to me only because it seems like McConnell creating any distance with Trump is news. And it seems he was kind of going out of his way to do that here.

Thorp: So it's interesting. 'Cause, I mean, I remember after that happening and standing around afterwards and talking to folks and just bein' like, "Wow, you know." McConnell is, again he's very strategic in what he says. He always thinks about what he's going to say. And if he doesn't wanna say anything or if he doesn't have anything to say, he won't say anything.

And when he said he hadn't had this conversation that President Trump said that he had, it was, it did seem significant that he decided to say, to get on the record bein' like, "Hey, no, actually that didn't really happen."

Kornacki: So Frank, and McConnell says he will hold the trial if the House passes the articles of impeachment. If that trial takes place, well, what would it look like? What would McConnell's role in that look like? What would his role be?

Thorp: Yeah, so it's, you know, I mean, this is somethin' that I've, like, totally (LAUGH), you know, delved into and, and deep dived on. You know, there's a lot of rules involved in the Senate and in an impeachment trial in the Senate. And McConnell would have a really big role in this. And, you know, I talked to Trent Lott, who basically, I mean, he ran the impeachment trial of Clinton.

And McConnell's gonna have a huge role in that he needs to be able to work with the, his, not only his Republican conference, but the entire Senate, even Democrats and Schumer in establishing a procedure for this. And, I mean, he's already said, you know, publicly we've already seen him say that, "It's going to be six days a week. Y'all are gonna have to," you know, saying to the Senators that they're gonna have to sit down in their seats, which, you know, basically, like, mentally preparing them for the fact that they're gonna actually have to sit there and not be able to talk, which, you know, is kind of a joke around the Senate. That they're all gonna freak out 'cause they're not gonna be able to say anything.

We had a long, you know, five, six week trial with Bill Clinton over here in the Senate. But, I mean, how long it goes here if articles of impeachment come over for President Trump, that's gonna have to be a negotiation that, that still has to take place. But McConnell will be basically running the show. He's gonna have to put together this entire process in a way that not only makes his members happy, but also Democrats too.

Kornacki: Let's just dive in a little bit here. We, we touched on this at the beginning. We can maybe go a little deeper here on the politics within McConnell's Republican conference. Starting maybe with this, this resolution. So Graham and McConnell put the resolution together. It is about the process. It is not, it makes no reference to, to any of the allegations about, you know, Trump, Ukraine policy, that sort of thing.

It's just about the process. And there are, we're taping, you know, mid-day Friday. I, I just read the names and ask you to tell us what this means. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, and Mitt Romney, Utah. They have not signed on. What's the significance of that?

Thorp: These are the senators to watch. I mean, these are the senators that are either skeptical of this story. Or, you know, they're, they're, they wanna hear more about this investigation. Some of these senators are also, they take the idea of being a juror in a Senate trial very seriously.

So, I mean, what this actually kind of also shows is a little bit of just a bit of a reality check. Unless something changes drastically here, the idea that Donald Trump would be convicted in the Senate is highly, highly unlikely.

Kornacki: Let me ask you that's. If, if the White House is thinking that, hey, if it comes to a Senate trial, we got McConnell. He will protect Trump. He will make sure there aren't defections. He will keep Republicans in line. Would the White House be smart to be thinking that?

Thorp: I think so in that. But I think it really depends on what happens in the next month. McConnell very much sees this as a situation where he doesn't necessarily need to defend the president. He can criticize him. But also the significance of convicting him seems I think a bridge too far for him and most Republicans.

I think that what we're gonna see is if the House sends over these articles of impeachment, he's gonna have to look at the calculus. If he just has the numbers, he's gonna allow this trial to go forward and, knowing that the president is not going to be convicted.

Kornacki: All right, well, we will keep checkin' in with you, Frank. Appreciate you joining us. Frank Thorp, thanks for your time.

Thorp: You bet.

Kornacki: And we have been asking you to submit your questions to us. And you have been coming through big time. A lot of your questions, in fact, have been about Mitch McConnell and his role in the impeachment process. And lots of you asked something that was along the lines of this question.

It comes to us from Texas. Christopher Carlson asked this. He said, "Are there any loopholes on the Senate side that Mitch McConnell could utilize to avoid a vote or even a debate in the Senate?" Well, that's a good question. That gets to whether McConnell has the power to dismiss the articles of impeachment should they reach the Senate.

And there is guidance on this in the Constitution and also in the Senate rule book. Now, according to the Constitution, the Senate has, quote, "The sole power to try all impeachments." And some argue that this means the Senate is allowed to try the impeachment, but isn't required to. The Senate rules on this question are a little clearer. The rules say that once the Senate is notified, that a majority of House members have voted to impeach, the Secretary of the Senate, quote, "Shall immediately inform the House of Representatives that the Senate is ready to receive the managers for the purpose of exhibiting such articles of impeachment."

And according to the rules, that would set in motion a trial that would last, quote, "until a final judgment shall be rendered." Here's Frank Thorp, the Senate master here at NBC News to explain it to you.

Thorp: Shall, in the Senate rules is a significant word. Now, there's been a debate in the Supreme Court in the past about whether or not shall in laws has a significance that means must. And there is a argument about whether or not shall actually means that you must do something. And they kind of fell on the other side of that.

But on the Senate, in the Senate, shall is considered a very significant word. And I, and you've seen this in what what McConnell's been saying is that, "We have to have this trial." Now, they have to start the trial. The question is, if they were to accept a vote on the motion to dismiss early on or if, you know, it's later on in the trial. And that's the question now.

I mean, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney and, and Lisa Murkowski, they might not vote to dismiss charges right away. They might want this process to actually happen. They might want the trial to actually go on. And, and Republican Senators are keeping an eye on that, you know. They are, are keenly aware of the idea that a motion to dismiss might not pass if it came early on in the trial.

Kornacki: All right, that was a great question. And we want you to keep them coming. Email us your questions, anything you think of, any question you have about impeachment, email it to us at Again, that is articletwo. Remember two is spelled T-W-O, not the number two, the word two. Get those questions in.

And after more than week of almost non-stop hearings in the impeachment inquiry, the House has been taking a break the past two days to honor the late Representative Elijah Cummings.

Archival Recordning: Elijah was truly a master of the House. He respected its history and in it he helped shape America's future. I have called him our North Star, our guide to a better future for our children.

Kornacki: Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, died last week from health complications. He was 68 years old. Cummings was the chair of the Oversight Committee which is one of the bodies that is overseeing the impeachment inquiry. Yesterday Republican representative Mark Meadows provided this rare moment of bipartisanship.

Mark Meadows: We're called to give honor where honor is due. And so it is fitting that we're here today to honor a friend. You know, he had a smile that would consume his whole face. You know that. But he also had eyes that would pierce through anybody that was standing in his way. He's defined by the character of his heart, the honesty of his dialogue, and the man that, the man that we will miss.

Kornacki: The House will resume impeachment depositions tomorrow. Philip Reeker, the Acting Assistant Secretary Of European And Eurasian Affairs, is scheduled to testify behind closed doors. Article II Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Naboa (PH) , and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornakie. We'll be back on Monday.