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Trump claimed the win. McConnell delivered it.

The president's acquittal on articles of impeachment may have been expected, but that doesn't mean the path there was easy. The Senate majority leader's maneuvers eased the way.
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WASHINGTON — In November, as the House moved toward impeaching President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had questions about a possible Senate trial. None of them were about its outcome.

"I will say I'm pretty sure how it's likely to end," McConnell told reporters. "If it were today, I don't think there's any question it would not lead to a removal. So the question is: How long does the Senate want to take? How long do the presidential candidates want to be here on the floor of the Senate instead of in Iowa and New Hampshire?"

On Wednesday, he got his answer: 16 days — about three weeks — a total, like nearly every other element of the trial proceedings, that reflected his publicly stated preferences. No witnesses. Virtually no Republican defections at any step of the process. And a speedy acquittal for the president.

The Senate voted to acquit Trump in a 52-48 vote on the first article of impeachment alleging abuse of power, with Mitt Romney of Utah being the lone Republican defection. The Senate also voted to acquit Trump in a 53-47 vote along party lines on the second article of impeachment, alleging obstruction of Congress.

Full coverage of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial

The final result may have been expected with GOP's 53-47 advantage in the upper chamber, but that doesn't mean the path to the win was easy. McConnell's maneuvers helped ease the way.

"It is very hard to beat Leader McConnell in a procedural match," said Rory Cooper, managing director at the communications firm Purple Strategies, who served as communications director for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

After the House impeached the president, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., held back the two articles of impeachment from the Senate in an attempt to get a guarantee that witnesses would be allowed. Instead, McConnell announced that he had enough GOP votes to open the trial without some sort of bipartisan agreement that guaranteed a witness section.

That didn't end the question of witnesses, which hung over most of the trial.

Romney had said repeatedly that he wanted to hear from, at a minimum, former national security adviser John Bolton. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she believed that "hearing from certain witnesses would give each side the opportunity to more fully and fairly make their case, resolve any ambiguities and provide additional clarity."

Democrats needed only two more GOP defections to bring witnesses into the picture — and as late as last week, they still had two undecided prospects in their sights: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is not running for re-election, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Last Thursday night, after days of public indecision, Alexander revealed his decision: He would vote against witnesses, officially leaving Senate Democrats short of their goal.

In a statement after the final question-and-answer period during the trial, Alexander said that while he believed Trump's actions were "inappropriate," he didn't need to hear from any additional witnesses.

James Thurber, a government professor at American University in Washington, said McConnell's "biggest win" was Alexander, who has called McConnell his best friend.

"I think it showed McConnell's influence over Alexander," Thurber said.

Before Alexander announced his position publicly, he informed McConnell. "He doesn't ever say very much," Alexander told NBC News when asked how McConnell reacted. "I just told him what I was going to do, and he thanked me for that."

The following day, the GOP conference defeated the vote to call witnesses.

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There remained the question of whether some Republicans, especially those facing tough re-election races, might join Democrats on the final votes on one or both articles of impeachment. One by one, they closed ranks.

"I cannot vote to convict," Murkowski said Monday on the Senate floor. "The Constitution provides for impeachment but does not demand it in all instances. The voters will pronounce a verdict in nine months, and we must trust their judgement."

Moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine, in a tight contest to keep her seat, followed a day later. The president's campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens had been "wrong," she said Tuesday, but she did "not believe the House has met its burden of the showing the president's conduct, however flawed, warrants the extreme step of removal from office."

It wasn't a perfect sweep.

Romney announced just hours before the final vote Wednesday that he would vote to convict on the first article of impeachment, abuse of power — meaning the vote to convict the president on at least one count would be bipartisan.

But Romney was the exception that proved the Republican rule, as all other GOP question marks resolved themselves in the president's — and McConnell's — favor.

"Ultimately, Mitch McConnell held all the cards," said Doug Heye, a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics, who has held top communications roles in the House and the Senate, at the Republican National Committee and in the administration of President George W. Bush. "McConnell had the votes when the process started and, despite the roller coaster ride in getting here because of things like John Bolton's book, still [had] them."

Thurber said McConnell is a "master at keeping his caucus together." But while it may be a win for him now, Thurber added, it "may not be a win later on" — if delivering the big victory for Trump costs him and his caucus key races in November.

McConnell is up for re-election this year, along with 22 other GOP Senate seats, three of which are rated as toss-ups by Cook Political Report: those of Collins, Martha McSally of Arizona and Cory Gardner of Colorado.

Despite the re-election risk, all three stuck with McConnell on impeachment.

"Republican voters never moved away from Trump," Cooper said. "His approval rating seemed to improve throughout the duration of impeachment, which meant his Republican senators were boxed in by their voters and thus leadership was reflective of the conference."

The night before his acquittal, the president praised McConnell during his State of the Union address for his efforts to confirm nearly 200 conservative federal judges. "Thank you, Mitch," he said, pausing for applause as McConnell smiled.

As Trump walked out of the House chamber after the speech, he shook McConnell's hand in the aisle. The majority leader patted the president on the back.

Less than 24 hours later, the impeachment trial was officially over.

"We voted, and it's in the rearview mirror," McConnell said Wednesday, adding: "It's time to move on."