Why Mitch McConnell Dumped Donald Trump
23 January 21
After the Capitol assault—and after losing his perch as Majority Leader—the senator finally denounced the outgoing President. Was it a moral reckoning or yet another act of political self-interest?
n the afternoon of January 6th, less than an hour before a violent mob supporting President Donald Trump broke into the Capitol, causing mayhem that led to the deaths of five Americans, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, gave the most powerful speech of his life. In a cold disavowal of Trump’s false claims about rampant election fraud, McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, stood behind the Senate dais and stated the obvious: despite two months of increasingly malign lies from Trump, and from many of his supporters in Congress, Joe Biden had won the Presidency. McConnell, in his dead-eyed, laconic manner, listed the damning facts, citing numerous federal judges and state officials who had rejected Trump’s baseless assertions that the election had been “rigged” against him. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” McConnell said. “If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.” Then, in a final jab, he pointed out that—contrary to Trump’s ludicrous claim that he’d won a second term by a landslide—the election “actually was not unusually close.” Trump had lost by seven million votes in the popular ballot, and 306–232 in the Electoral College.
In the days after the Capitol attack, as horrifying footage emerged of marauders ransacking the building and chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” and “Treason!,” McConnell, through a series of anonymously sourced reports in major news outlets, distanced himself even further from the President. As a prominent Republican strategist noted, “Nothing’s everhappenstance with McConnell”—and so each report was taken as a Delphic signal. On January 12th, the Times published a headline declaring that McConnell was “said to be pleased” about the Democrats’ intention to impeach the President a second time. Unnamed associates revealed to reporters on Capitol Hill that McConnell was no longer speaking to Trump, and might vote to convict him if the impeachment process moved to a Senate trial. On January 13th, ten Republican members of the House of Representatives joined the Democrats in impeaching Trump, for “incitement of insurrection.” Soon afterward, McConnell made clear to his Republican colleagues that he regarded impeachment as a matter of individual conscience, not one of party loyalty. And on January 19th, the day before Biden was sworn in as President, McConnell shocked political circles by denouncing Trump even more directly. Speaking from the Senate floor, he said, with extraordinary bluntness, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the President and other powerful people.”
McConnell’s denunciation of Trump won grudging praise from many corners, including people who rarely support him. Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has been fiercely critical of McConnell, told me, “I was surprised at Mitch’s comments. They were more forthright than I expected. Good for him!” But nobody who has watched McConnell closely over the years views his split with Trump as a genuine moral reckoning. “There is no way that McConnell has had an epiphany and will now change his fundamental approach,” Ornstein said. “He will always act ruthlessly when it serves his own interest.” Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of McConnell’s rupture with Trump may be not that it happened but, rather, that it took so long—and that the leader of the Party in Congress countenanced so much damage along the way.
Adam Jentleson, a former top Democratic Senate aide and the author of “Kill Switch,” a new book about the Senate, said, of McConnell, “He should be deservedly held accountable for spending more than a month giving credence to Trump’s claims of election fraud—on the Senate floor.” Jentleson added that McConnell, by failing to speak out earlier, had “offered legitimacy” to Trump’s war on the truth: “Other Republicans took their signals from McConnell and continued to fan the flames. You can blame the rioters, but the entire Republican Party was telling them their claims were legitimate.”
McConnell’s accusation that the insurrectionists had been “fed lies” was couched in the passive voice. It skipped over the fact that he hadn’t even acknowledged the outcome of the election himself until December 15th—six weeks after it took place, and following the Electoral College’s certification of Biden as the winner. McConnell, in a brief speech on the Senate floor, congratulated him, calling him “President-elect.” But McConnell did not publicly confront Trump’s continued denials that he had lost until after the January 5th runoff election in Georgia, in which the Democratic Party gained two Senate seats, giving it control of the Senate and toppling McConnell from his position as Majority Leader. By then, according to some polls, as many as eighty-two per cent of Republican voters believed Trump’s false claims of fraud, and when his enraged supporters gathered on the National Mall many of them were determined to use force to override the official election results. The ensuing assault and ransacking of the Capitol was not only the most serious attempt at an anti-democratic coup in the country’s history; it also deepened the crisis of the Republican Party. Additionally, it triggered the flight of a striking number of its major corporate backers—a development that, if it continues, could make it considerably harder for McConnell to retake the Senate in 2022.
Still, given Trump’s continuing popularity among Republicans, many people in Washington were surprised that McConnell—who is by far the most powerful, and often the most inscrutable, member of the Party in Congress—was willing to openly revolt against him. But John Yarmuth, a Democratic representative from Louisville, Kentucky, who has known McConnell since the late sixties, told me he’d long predicted that the alliance between Trump and McConnell would end once the President could no longer help McConnell. “Three years ago, I said he’d wait until Trump was an existential threat to the Party, and then cut him loose,” Yarmuth said. “He’s been furious with Trump for a long time. Many who know him have talked with him about how much he hates Trump.” But, Yarmuth noted, McConnell, focussed on Republican judicial appointments, “made a Faustian deal for all those judges.” Since 2017, McConnell has played an oversized role in helping Trump install more than two hundred conservative federal judges, including three Supreme Court Justices.
For four years, McConnell and others in the establishment wing of the Republican Party embraced the conceit that they could temper Trump’s behavior, exploit his popularity, and ignore the racist, violent, and corrupt forces he unleashed. Ornstein observed that McConnell, in a cynical bargain, “used Trump to accomplish his goals of packing the courts and getting tax cuts.” (Since 2016, the top corporate tax rate has been nearly halved, to twenty-one per cent.) In exchange for these gifts to the Party’s corporate backers, McConnell stayed largely silent in the face of Trump’s inflammatory lies and slurs—even though, according to insiders, he privately held the President in contempt. He covered for Trump’s political incompetence, eventually passing budgets and pandemic relief, despite Trump’s tantrums and government shutdowns. And he protected Trump from accountability during the first impeachment trial, in early 2020, announcing in advance that there was “zero chance” a Senate under his leadership would convict the President.
But any pretense that McConnell could maintain control over Trump or over the Party’s fate unravelled after the 2020 election. McConnell was caught between denouncing Trump’s lies and alienating his supporters, thereby risking the loss of the two Senate seats in the Georgia runoff. Faced with a choice between truth and self-interest, McConnell opted for the latter. “He knew he had to keep the team together for Georgia,” a former Trump Administration official close to McConnell’s circle told me. “For him, being Majority Leader was the whole ballgame. It’s hard to overstate. It’s pretty obvious that for McConnell one of the reasons he was so indulgent of Trump was Georgia.”
It is impossible to know whether McConnell would have confronted Trump’s election lies earlier, had his own powerful job not been in play. But, in the weeks after November 3rd, McConnell continued to lend tacit support to Trump’s increasingly dangerous claims that he was the true victor. In a combative Senate speech six days after the election, McConnell declared that Trump was “a hundred per cent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.” He went on to scold the many public figures who were demanding that Trump concede. “Let’s not have any lectures about how the President should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spent four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election,” McConnell said. As he surely knew, it was a false equivalence: Democratic politicians had raised many questions about the effects of Russian interference on the 2016 election results, but Hillary Clinton had conceded the race the morning after the vote.
With only a few exceptions—most notably, Mitt Romney, the lone Republican senator who voted to convict during Trump’s first impeachment trial—the vast majority of the Republican caucus in the Senate followed McConnell’s lead. They avoided any acknowledgment of Biden’s victory and declined to denounce Trump’s flagrant lies or his outrageous, and potentially criminal, efforts to pressure officials into nullifying the votes in Georgia and in other swing states.
Several Republican advisers argued to me that McConnell had no reasonable choice. If he had confronted Trump before the Georgia runoff, they said, Trump would have launched a civil war within the Party, possibly even commanding his supporters not to vote. “It could have been worse,” the former Trump official said. “Trump could have attacked” the two Republican Senate candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, or the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee. As one of the advisers put it, “McConnell was trying to keep the wheels on the train for a few more hours.”
The price of Trump’s coöperation, however, grew ever higher. According to a well-informed Republican insider, Trump made unconscionable demands behind the scenes. He threatened to withhold his support for Loeffler and Perdue, and refused to campaign for them unless they joined his attacks on Georgia’s election officials and repeated his false claims of widespread election fraud. Days before the runoff, the insider said, the President forced Perdue to leave the campaign trail for a secret meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida. There, Trump coerced Perdue not just into taking his side on election fraud but also into supporting an increase in the size of pandemic-relief checks to two thousand dollars—a figure that McConnell and Senate Republicans opposed. If Perdue refused, Trump made clear, he might withdraw his support. At the time, a spokesman for Perdue’s campaign denied that Trump had pressured Perdue. But, soon after the Mar-a-Lago meeting, both Perdue and Loeffler began echoing Trump’s call for larger relief checks, placing themselves and McConnell in an embarrassing political bind. Trump, meanwhile, went on Twitter and attacked McConnell’s opposition to the bigger relief checks, calling it a “death wish.” The President’s behavior toward the candidates led the insider to a simple conclusion: “Trump is a thug.”
On January 3rd, the Washington Post reported that Trump had made a threatening phone call to Georgia’s secretary of state, demanding that he “find” enough votes to overturn the state’s Presidential results. The newspaper soon released a recording of the shocking call, leaving no doubt as to its authenticity. Despite the escalating provocations from the Oval Office, McConnell and all but a few renegade Republicans in the Senate remained studiously silent. They ducked or feigned ignorance when reporters asked them about death threats that Georgia’s election officials were facing, and they ignored dire warnings from those officials, and many others, that bloodshed would result if Trump’s lies weren’t confronted.
As it turned out, the Republican leadership’s complicity with Trump was not only cynical; it also may have been an egregious miscalculation, given that voter data suggests his unchecked behavior likely cost the Republican Party the two Georgia seats. The chaos and the intra-party warfare in the state appear to have led large numbers of moderate Republican voters in the suburbs to either vote Democratic or not vote at all. And in some deeply conservative pockets of Georgia where the President held rallies, such as the Dalton area, Republican turnout was unexpectedly low, likely because Trump had undermined his supporters’ faith in the integrity of American elections.
By dawn on January 6th, it had become clear that Loeffler and Perdue were both going to lose. The personal and political consequences for McConnell were cataclysmic. Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist who helped lead Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign and was a founder of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, told me, “McConnell had a forty-eight hours like no one else. He became Minority Leader andhis Capitol was invaded. Domestic terrorists got inside it this time—unlike on 9/11.” (On that day, Al Qaeda had planned to crash a United Airlines flight into the Capitol, but the plane went down after passengers overwhelmed the hijackers.) Stevens went on, “And what happened in Georgia was incredible. He’s scared to death, too, at how corporate America is responding. Supporting the overthrow of the U.S. government isn’t good for business.”
After the January 6th insurrection, dozens of the largest corporate campaign donors, including A.T. & T., Comcast, and Honeywell, used their cash to send a message: their political action committees would no longer contribute to the hundred and forty-seven Republican representatives and senators who had opposed certification of the Presidential election even after the Capitol riot, on the spurious ground that the process had been less than fair. Even Koch Industries, the huge oil-refining conglomerate that has served as the conservative movement’s piggy bank for decades, said that it was reëvaluating its political contributions. McConnell, who once infamously declared that the three most important ingredients for political success in America are “money,” “money,” and “money,” was reportedly alarmed. A spokesperson for McConnell denies this, but, according to the Associated Press, he spent much of the weekend after the Capitol assault talking with colleagues and the Republican Party’s wealthy corporate donors, promising that he, too, was finally done with Trump.
Still, with another impeachment trial looming in the Senate, it’s unclear whether McConnell will truly end his compact with Trumpism. His recent denunciation of Trump sounded unequivocal. But he and his Republican caucus could make the same miscalculation that they made in Georgia, choosing to placate the Trumpian base of the Party rather than confront its retrograde values and commitment to falsehoods. So far, McConnell has been characteristically cagey. Although he let it be known that he regards Trump’s behavior as potentially impeachable, he also signalled that he hasn’t personally decided whether he will vote to convict him. He explained that he wants first to hear the evidence. He also rejected Democrats’ requests that he bring the Senate back from a winter recess to start the impeachment trial immediately, saying he prefers that the Senate trial begin in mid-February. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, has said that she might start the trial process by sending the article of impeachment to the Senate as early as January 25th. Either way, it will be left to Chuck Schumer, the leader of the new Democratic majority in the Senate, to take on the politically perilous business of presiding over the trial of a former President—an unprecedented event in American history.
“I think McConnell is trying to have it both ways,” Stevens told me. “He absolutely doesn’t want to impeach and convict Trump. It would split his base and cause members of his caucus to face primary challengers.” Stevens contended that McConnell, by signalling his openness to impeachment without committing to convicting Trump, was trying to avoid a meltdown of the Republican Party. Stevens likened McConnell to the top engineer at Chernobyl, who, after the power plant malfunctioned, thought that he could micromanage a nuclear disaster: “He tried to take the rods out.” Stevens added, “If he really wanted an impeachment conviction, he’d have done the trial right away.”
At first, political observers from both parties considered it possible that McConnell was merely using the threat of an impeachment trial as a brushback—a way to hold Trump in line as he left office. Then McConnell directly accused Trump of having “provoked” the mob. Jim Manley, who served as the senior communications adviser to Harry Reid, the former Democratic Majority Leader, told me, “There is no going back now. He has decided to cut his losses, and do what he can to make sure Trump is no longer a threat to the Republican Party.” McConnell and other Republican leaders, Manley suggested, “have gotten as much out of Trump as they can, and it’s now time to make sure Trump is damaged goods.”
But the risks for McConnell and other Senate Republicans are high. It’s never good for a party leader to get out too far ahead of his caucus members—he risks losing their fundamental support. Senator Lindsey Graham has criticized McConnell’s decision to blame Trump for the Capitol riot and has warned that, “without Trump’s help” in 2022, “we cannot take back the House and the Senate,” adding, “If you’re wanting to erase Donald Trump from the Party, you’re going to get erased.” McConnell’s maneuvers have also stirred the wrath of such powerful right-wing media figures as Sean Hannity, the Fox News host known for his unyielding sycophancy toward Trump. Hannity has called for McConnell to step down from the Party’s leadership in the Senate.
But if McConnell can muster the additional sixteen Republican votes necessary for a conviction—doing so requires the assent of two-thirds of the Senate, and the fifty Democratic senators are expected to vote as a bloc—he will have effectively purged Trump from the Party. Moreover, after a conviction, the Senate could hold a second vote, to bar Trump permanently from running for any federal office. Such a move might strengthen McConnell’s clout within the Party and help his wing of traditional Republicans reëstablish itself as the face of the G.O.P. Al Cross, a veteran political reporter and the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, at the University of Kentucky, said, of McConnell, “I think he sees a chance to make Trump this generation’s version of Nixon, leaving no doubt who is at the top of the Republican heap.” Banning Trump would also guarantee that a different Republican will secure the Party’s nomination for President in 2024. Otherwise, Trump threatens to cast a shadow over the Party’s future. He has discussed running again, and, shortly before flying to Florida on January 20th, he stood on a tarmac and vowed, “We will be back in some form.”
Jentleson, the former Senate aide, thinks that McConnell and his party are in a very tricky spot: “The glue that kept the Tea Party and establishment Republicans together during the past few years was tax cuts and judges. And McConnell can’t deliver those anymore. So you could basically see the Republican Party coming apart at the seams. You need to marry the forty per cent that is the Trump base with the ten per cent that’s the establishment. McConnell is like a cartoon character striding aside a crack that’s getting wider as the two plates drift farther apart. They may not come back together. If they can’t reattach, they can’t win.”
There is another option: McConnell could just lie low and wait to see if the Democrats self-destruct. A divisive Senate impeachment trial may undercut Biden’s message of bipartisan unity, hampering his agenda in the crucial early months of his Presidency, when he needs momentum. McConnell has already seized on the fifty-fifty balance between the parties in the Senate in order to obstruct the Democrats. He’s refusing to devise rules for moving forward on Senate business unless Schumer yields to his demand not to alter the filibuster rule. Reviled by progressives, the rule requires a supermajority of sixty votes to pass legislation, rather than the simple majority that the Democrats now have if Vice-President Kamala Harriscasts a tie-breaking vote. McConnell, who wrote a memoir titled “The Long Game,” is a master at outwaiting his foes. And, as Jentleson observed, one can never overestimate the appeal for politicians of “kicking the can down the road,” especially when confronted with tough decisions.
McConnell could conceivably make a play that would avoid a direct showdown over convicting Trump. A conservative legal argument has recently been advanced by J. Michael Luttig, a prominent former federal appeals-court judge: the Senate, he says, has no constitutional authority to hold an impeachment trial after a President has left office. Luttig’s argument has been challenged by numerous constitutional scholars, some of whom have cited an instance in which a lesser official was impeached after leaving office. But this politically convenient exit ramp is alluring, and Luttig is held in high regard by conservatives. The Republican senator Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, a Harvard Law School graduate, has eagerly embraced the theory, arguing, “The Founders designed the impeachment process as a way to remove officeholders from public office—not an inquest against private citizens.” So has Joni Ernst, of Iowa, who is a member of McConnell’s leadership team.
Christopher Browning, a historian of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, told me that McConnell has been almost “Houdini-like at escaping his own devil’s pact” with Trump. In a widely admired essay in The New York Review of Books, from 2018, Browning called McConnell “the gravedigger of American democracy,” and likened him to elected officials in Weimar Germany who struck early deals with Hitler, mistakenly believing that they could contain him and his followers. When I asked Browning if he still regarded McConnell in this way, he said that the new Minority Leader had “cut a better deal than most.” McConnell was “lucky that Trump was so lazy, feckless, and undisciplined.” Hitler didn’t go golfing, Browning pointed out. But Browning found little to celebrate in McConnell’s performance. “If Trump had won the election, Mitch would not be jumping ship,” he noted. “But the fact is Trump lost, and his coup failed. And that opened an escape hatch for Mitch.” Browning warned, however, that “the McConnell wing was ready to embrace Trump’s usurping of democracy—if Trump could pull it off.”
If McConnell does vote to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, it won’t be the first time that, out of political convenience, he has turned on his party’s leader. In 1973, when McConnell was an ambitious young lawyer, he wrote an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal which referred to Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal and denounced the corrupting influence of political money. Given McConnell’s later embrace of unregulated political funds, it may seem hard to square the author of that high-minded piece with the McConnell of today. But what remains consistent is that then, as now, he was acting in his self-interest. He later confessed to a biographer that the newspaper column was merely “playing for headlines.” McConnell was planning to run for office, as a Republican, and one thing was certain: he needed to protect himself from the stain of a disgraced President.