Just as necessity is often the mother of invention, acrimony is frequently the father of unvarnished appraisal. Since their uncomfortable political union came apart, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and former president Donald Trump have proved that point. After a Trump-stoked mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, McConnell voted against conviction in his (second) impeachment trial on the grounds that Trump was no longer in office by the time of the Feb. 13 vote. But McConnell also took to the Senate floor to declare that Trump’s actions preceding the riot “were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
“There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” he said, adding that the Trump mob’s belief the election had been stolen was the result of “an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”
McConnell, Trump soon rejoined, “is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.” He has since added “stone-cold loser” and “dumb son of a bitch” to his litany of insults.
McConnell had it exactly right about Trump, whereas Trump missed the mark about the Senate’s Republican leader. Dour, yes, but dumb? Hardly. It’s McConnell’s shrewd, albeit cynical, use of power — power exercised far less for problem-solving than obstructing and prevailing — that makes him so formidable.
The breach between Trump and McConnell is now so pronounced that Trump is casting about for someone to challenge McConnell for Republican leader in the Senate, The Wall Street Journal reports. That prospect of conflict between the dishonest demagogue who leads the pugnacious populist wing of the party and the Machiavellian manipulator who heads its institutional branch doesn’t bring joy to sober-minded Republicans.
“Circular firing squads never advance the cause of any army or political party,” longtime Republican pollster Whit Ayres noted to me.
Can an out-of-power pol still popular with his party’s grass roots use a populist battering ram to demolish a tight-lipped tactician’s insulated institutional stronghold? (The smart bet: no).
Although McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, served as Trump’s secretary of transportation, the Republican Senate leader and Trump were never more than allies of convenience, tensions between them evident even in the early days of their odd-couple political cohabitation. One example: To advance his own agenda, Trump wanted McConnell to do away with the filibuster, which was akin to asking Dracula to forgo his fangs.
But though McConnell dislikes Trump and considers him bonkers, he didn’t make a precipitous break with him until the events of Jan. 6. Back then, McConnell wasn’t the only Republican leader to acknowledge reality.
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who had implored Trump by phone to call his modern-day band of Blood Tubs off, said that Trump “bears responsibility for . . . [the] attack on Congress by a mob of rioters,” adding that “he should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
However, McCarthy, quickly concluded that his hopes of becoming House speaker depended on keeping Trump inside the GOP’s tent — and thus traveled to Mar-a-Lago to undertake some groveling.
“Kevin came down to kiss my [butt],” Trump accurately observed, according to “Peril,” Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book.
But McConnell has obviously made a different calculation than has McCarthy — and so has declined to do the vermicular wriggling necessary to reenter Trump’s good graces.
These days, McConnell ignores Trump’s provocations.
“I don’t have any reaction to that,” he replied when asked on Tuesday about Trump’s effort to unhorse him. Bet on this: It’s not because McConnell isn’t seething, but rather because, as a practitioner of the long game, he thinks that with each new revelation about Trump’s attempt to subvert democracy and each indictment of a Trump-empire employee, the former president’s informal political power will ebb. Possessed of little charisma or oratorical ability or grass-roots appeal of his own, McConnell is content to let time fight in his stead.
If Trump eventually quietly abandons his anti-McConnell quest because of a lack of either a plausible challenger or any significant support for that person — and that’s my bet — it will be a victory for McConnell that’s apparent to everyone who matters to the Republican leader.
If, contrariwise, Trump continues to target McConnell as he tries to sustain his MAGA midterm movement, McConnell at some point may feel it’s necessary to return fire. That would raise a revealing curtain on the simmering civil war between a faux-populist former president who considers the GOP his personal cult and a shrewd power-loving insider unwilling to truckle to him.
And let us all hear their undiplomatic but thoroughly diverting assessments of each other.