McConnell meets another legacy moment

February 2, 2024 5:45 am

Then President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell shown at the White House in 2017. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When Mitch McConnell kept the Supreme Court from going liberal, then worked with Donald Trump to remake it and other federal courts in the image of the Federalist Society and big-money political contributors, that looked like the primary legacy of McConnell’s decades in the Senate.

Then Trump falsely contested his 2020 defeat, inspiring the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, and McConnell called him on it — but was unwilling or unable to get the Senate to convict Trump on impeachment and disqualify him from office. So that looked, to many, like more of a legacy moment.

Now, in perhaps his last year as leader of Senate Republicans, McConnell is in a crucible with historic implications. At stake are the next presidential election, the future of the Republican Party, the future of Ukraine, and the standing of the United States in the world. And by the way, how history will remember Mitch McConnell. 

Ukraine may not survive as a truly independent nation without more weapons and ammunition from the U.S., and increasingly isolationist Republicans in Congress say it will get no more aid until President Biden accepts their demands for changes in asylum policy and other border security.

The phrase “their demands” has at least two definitions, because House Republicans have a plan stricter than the one being drafted by Senate Republicans — who, unlike their House counterparts, are in the minority and have to work with Democrats to pass bills.

McConnell wanted to pass one package with border security and aid to Ukraine — of which he has been the main advocate and defender — but he had to adopt a border-first approach due to internal pushback. Then Trump won New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 presidential primary and became Republicans’ all-but-certain nominee. The next day, McConnell privately told GOP senators that the politics of the issues had changed.

Republicans had been divided about Ukraine but united on the border, but now Trump was pushing them to kill the unseen Senate border bill — because, McConnell said, Trump wants to run on the issue, is the “nominee” and “We don’t want to do anything to undermine him,” Punchbowl News reported and other news organizations confirmed.

Mitt Romney (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

This was a remarkable statement for someone who had blamed Trump for the Jan. 6 riot and said after the failed impeachment that the justice system could hold him accountable. But McConnell had said not long after the second failed impeachment that he would support Trump if nominated this year.

McConnell had hoped he would never have to deal with Trump again, but now he does, partly because Attorney General Merrick Garland — whose Supreme Court nomination McConnell had blocked, preventing a liberal majority on the court — and his appointees moved too slowly to charge Trump with the crimes of Jan. 6.

While McConnell showed Trump a measure of respect by referring to him as the party’s nominee, he also said the former president had put Republicans “in a quandary,” senators told The New York Times. McConnell left the specifics to other senators, such as Mitt Romney of Utah, who said ”the idea that someone running for president would say ‘Please hurt the country so I can blame my opponent and help my politics’ is a shocking development.”

In any event, this would be the first immigration-reform measure without something for Democrats, who are willing to swallow it because the border problem endangers Biden’s reelection. But some Republicans don’t want to take yes for an answer. “Some of McConnell’s Republicans warn that he’s failing to read a House GOP that has no interest in policy achievements with Biden in office,” Politico reported.

It can be argued that McConnell is in a fix of his own making because he didn’t push to try, convict and disqualify Trump for Jan. 6. But we still don’t know whether he could have gotten 10 more Republican senators (including himself) to convict and disqualify, whether and how he explored that possibility, and how much the prospect of Trump forming a third party as revenge figured in the calculations.

What we do know is that polls in the days after Jan. 6 showed Trump losing little support among Republicans, but McConnell and then-Vice President Mike Pence losing most of theirs — a strong indication that getting to 67 conviction votes from the 57 actually cast would have been difficult. There’s still no evidence that McConnell tried to do that; if he had really tried, we would know about it, and he might no longer be leader. If he had tried and succeeded, he still would have been in a minority of his caucus on a fundamental issue, a dangerous position for a leader who wants to stay leader.

Right now, McConnell seems to have the good of the country in mind. But how did that enter into his calculations then?

This column is republished from the Northern Kentucky Tribune, a nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism.

A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. while Congress held a joint session to ratify Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over then-President Donald Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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Al Cross
Al Cross

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director emeritus of its Institute for Rural Journalism. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.