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McConnell largely avoids impeachment talk while back home

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — While impeachment drama swirls in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was back home in Kentucky on Monday talking about fighting opioid misuse and confirming conservative judges.

The Republican leader, a steadfast defender of President Donald Trump, made only momentary references to impeachment during his public appearances. McConnell left both events without speaking to reporters.

House Democrats are leading the impeachment inquiry into Trump's dealings with Ukraine, but McConnell will assume a key role if the matter reaches the Senate. But the potentially monumental issue of whether the president should be removed from office barely came up during McConnell's speeches Monday.

His only direct reference to impeachment came while speaking to members of the conservative Federalist Society about the Senate process of confirming judges. "There's no doubt that the confirmation process means whatever the Senate thinks at any given time," McConnell said during the appearance at Kentucky's Capitol in Frankfort. "It's much like impeachment, which is in the news now. Some people think of it as a judicial-type proceeding. It's a political decision."

McConnell has led the push by the Republican-controlled Senate to confirm a slew of conservative judges nominated by Trump to the federal bench. "My motto for the rest of the year is: Leave no vacancy behind," the senator said.

McConnell explained at length why he's made judicial appointments a top priority during the Trump era, even putting confirmations ahead of legislation. "Why? It's pretty obvious — lifetime appointments," he said. "If you want to have an impact on the country, there are not many things that we do that can't be undone by the next election. ... But there's not much you can do about a young, strict constructionist who's committed for a lifetime to the quaint notion that maybe the job of a judge is to follow the law."

Earlier in the day, McConnell joined in celebrating an $87 million federal grant awarded to the University of Kentucky in the spring to combat opioid misuse. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also attended the event.

The goal of the university's research team is to reduce opioid-related deaths by 40% in 16 Kentucky counties within the next three years. Kentucky has been among the states hardest hit by the deadly opioid misuse epidemic.

"The opportunity to advance causes like this is the kind of thing that gives my colleagues and I enormous job satisfaction," McConnell said during the campus event in Lexington. "There are a few distractions, as you may have noticed. But if you sort of keep your head on straight and remember why you were sent there (to Washington), there are opportunities to do important things for the country and for the states that we represent."

Last Friday, when McConnell appeared with Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the University of Louisville, reporters were told that no questions from them would be taken. McConnell and Esper spoke briefly about defense spending.

On Monday, as McConnell was in an elevator on his way out of Kentucky's Capitol, a McConnell aide told a reporter: "We don't have time, sorry." While McConnell has avoided talking about impeachment while back in Kentucky for the congressional recess, he released a social media campaign ad vowing to stop any Democratic push to remove Trump from office. He's using the ad to raise campaign funds off the Trump inquiry. McConnell is running for reelection next year.

"All of you know your Constitution," McConnell said in the video. "The way that impeachment stops is with a Senate majority with me as majority leader." McConnell weighed in on another issue Monday, offering a stern warning against abandoning Syrian Kurds who fought the Islamic State group with U.S. troops. It came after Trump said he intends to pull back U.S. troops from northern Syria, drawing sharp criticism from some of the president's closest allies.

"A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime," McConnell said in a statement. "And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup."

Associated Press writer Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.

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