By now a few things should be evident as it relates to Donald Trump. First, he desperately needs to feel relevant. Second, he cannot let go of any perceived slight. Third, he needs to be in a fight with someone like he needs to breathe. Fourth, if his fight involves a Republican, he generally wins.
Given all of that, there should be no doubt that Trump probably watched with pure glee when House Republicans gathered on Wednesday and in 16 minutes stripped Liz Cheney of her role as the third highest-ranking Republican in the House.
Cheney was the most senior Republican to vote to impeach Trump earlier this year. Even after he was acquitted, she didn’t back off her criticism. Trump then called for her to be removed. And, as he wished, she was.
Once a vote was announced no one was surprised about what came next. Cheney delivered a leadership farewell speech of sorts on the eve of the vote. She began plotting her next chapter, which involved booking high-profile television interviews.
Everyone knew what to expect because everyone saw this story before. Republicans, especially the base of the party, absolutely love Trump. As president, if Trump endorsed a Republican for office, that Republican won around 98 percent of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. For many incumbents, simply getting the Trump endorsement early on meant that they wouldn’t have a primary challenger at all.
Since losing reelection, Trump continues to have considerable sway over the Republican Party. His picks for positions like state Republican chair are largely heeded. He is now weighing in on 2022 races for governor, US Senate, and even this week he backed a candidate running to be Florida agriculture commissioner.
It’s obvious that Trump enjoys the role of kingmaker. And it is obvious that Trump is looking for his next high-profile fight. Will he turn his sights on deposing Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell?
The simple answer is maybe, but it is complicated.
Relations between McConnell and Trump are certainly strained. McConnell says he hasn’t talked to him since December 14th, the day that McConnell declared that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.
Going further, McConnell reportedly said that he never wanted to talk to Trump again. When it came time to count Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, McConnell, who was still running the Senate, pressed his members to proceed as they always have in the past. He voted against every challenge to the count. When the Capitol was attacked, McConnell placed blame on Trump.
Since then McConnell has maintained that he isn’t looking to discuss Trump, but there have been, as they say, microaggressions. After all, during the latest Trump versus Cheney fight, national television cameras captured McConnell giving a very warm greeting to Cheney around President Biden’s first address to Congress. (The greeting didn’t get the same attention as Biden’s fist bump with Cheney.) And while he suggested that the House removing Cheney from leadership was their business, McConnell said he was a “great admirer” of her.
So the stage is set for this fight, but will Trump go ahead with it? Trump buddy Sean Hannity has already suggested that it’s time for new Republican leadership in the Senate, but it is unclear whether Trump will act.
While Trump is no doubt bored and would enjoy the headlines from such a fight two things may make him hold off.
First of all, this might be one intra-Republican Party fight he cannot win. McConnell is very close to his members and he raises them millions for their own re-elections, something Cheney, for example, doesn’t have the same grip on.
Second, McConnell isn’t actively poking Trump. There is simply no urgency or any need for Trump to try to remove him. Consider the contrast: Cheney is bringing up Trump often, saying he is a current threat to the Republican Party and the nation. McConnell says he sees Biden and his policies as the threat.
Third, there is the issue of how to replace McConnell. The second in command is John Thune of South Dakota, who was even more outspoken against Trump after the election. The more Trump-y members are either way too low in seniority to be considered, would never get enough votes to be leader (Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Rand Paul) or possibly about to either retire or be voted out of office (Ron Johnson).
It’s possible that for Trump, the McConnell project will be a long-term one. Maybe Trump actively gets involved in the 2022 midterms and maybe those new Republican senators will back an ouster. Maybe Trump does that again in 2024. But if McConnell wins back the majority for Republicans, Trump will have a hard time opposing him based on years-old comments. Besides after McConnell, 79, won reelection last fall, most are expecting this to be his final term.