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Mitch McConnell can avoid it all he wants, but Trump is still his problem

McConnell’s failure to hold Trump accountable means he has to talk about the former president even when he would rather not

Eric Garcia
Wednesday 14 June 2023 22:13 BST
(Getty Images)

Throughout most of Tuesday, as former president Donald Trump appeared in court for his arraignment in Miami, stories abounded about how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to create distance between himself and the former president.

Ever since last Thursday, when Mr Trump announced the indictment, Mr McConnell has remained astutely tight-lipped. Whereas House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has regularly gone to the mat and defended Mr Trump, Mr McConnell has avoided discussing it.

Veterans of Washington know that what the often inscrutable Mr McConnell does not say is just as important as what he does say. On Tuesday, during the Senate Republican leadership’s news conference, a reporter asked Mr McConnell about his reaction to Mr Trump’s indictment. The Senate stalwart said he was “not gonna start commenting on the various candidates.”

By contrast, Mr McCarthy has vociferously gone to bat for Mr Trump, even defending Mr Trump reportedly keeping documents in his bathroom by saying that at least “a bathroom door locks.” Mr McCarthy’s willingness to go to the mat for Mr Trump contrasted with Mr McConnell’s silence seems to represent a stark contrast between the two Republican leaders since January 6: Mr McConnell has mostly tried to avoid discussing the former president while Mr McCarthy has maintained a close relationship with him.

Similarly, Mr Trump seems to treat the two men very differently. Mr Trump notably called Mr McCarthy “My Kevin” and he even helped Mr McCarthy secure the necessary votes to become speaker earlier this year. Meanwhile, he has reserved nothing but vitriol for Mr McConnell, whom he has called “Old Crow.”

Mr McConnell has every reason to loathe Mr Trump. Not only did Mr Trump’s words and deeds threaten his life, but he cost Mr McConnell a Senate majority by constantly crowing (pun intended) about the election being stolen instead of helping Republicans win two Senate seats in Georgia that Democrats eventually secured. In last year’s midterms, Mr Trump saddled Mr Trump with virtually unelectable Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia.

But for all of the attempts – including from Mr McConnell’s allie – to draw a contrast between the two, Mr McConnell is in the same boat as Mr McCarthy. And because of his refusal to hold Mr Trump accountable, he and the Senate Republican conference will continue to be weighed down by the former president.

As much as he may dislike Mr Trump now, few people enabled him more and few benefited from Mr Trump as much as Mr McConnell did. While it may be hard for liberals to believe now, but during Barack Obama’s presidency, Mr McConnell earned a reputation among conservatives as a RINO for his willingness to work with then-vice president Joe Biden in crucial moments.

The image of the cutthroat enforcer in the Senate came into being after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died and Mr McConnell prevented Mr Obama’s nominee, now-Attorney General Merrick Garland, from having even a confirmation hearing. That motivated conservatives, especially social conservatives who care about the judiciary, to pull the lever for Mr Trump despite their misgivings.

Mr McConnell also rammed through the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court even as he faced allegations of sexual assault, which the judge denied. Mr McConnell didn’t pay a price for that, as Republicans gained four seats in the 2018 midterms, which further solidified his reputation as the Grim Reaper. And in 2020, he went back on his original pledge to not confirm justices during a presidential election year when he confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg weeks before the election.

All of that should have made it easier for Mr McConnell to hold Mr Trump accountable after the riot on January 6. He had already gotten what he needed from Mr Trump – tax cuts and a generation-long conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Had he voted to convict Mr Trump, he likely would have motivated other more staid Republicans to do the same.

Republicans might have suffered some anger from the base for ditching the de facto figurehead of the GOP, but it would mean Republicans could create some distance between the former president and themselves and endorse candidates he backed and ultimately get back to winning.

But Mr McConnell’s decision to not convict Mr Trump means that he is stuck with an impossible task: He wants to not mention Mr Trump when many voters consider Mr Trump the leader of his party. And in that respect, he can claim all the moral superiority he wants, but he is virtually the same as Mr McCarthy.

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