Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Mitch McConnell fiddles while the country burns

Mandatory Credit: Photo by MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9458038b) Mitch McConnell Senate Majority Leader Republlican Mitch McConnell, Washington, USA - 13 Mar 2018 Senate Majority Leader Republlican Mitch McConnell attends a news conference following a Senate Republican policy luncheon, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 13 March 2018.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA/Shutterstock
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell at a news conference following a Republican policy luncheon on March 13.

WHEN THE HISTORY of the Trump era is written, the list of those who enabled and normalized his authoritarian, anti-democratic, and corrupt presidency will be significant. But a special place needs to be reserved for one member of Congress in particular — Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

This week, McConnell was asked about a bill being debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired. Considering that Trump has not only mused about the possibility of firing Mueller, but has allegedly tried to do it twice, such legislation is clearly urgently needed.

McConnell doesn’t see it that way. The Kentucky senator scoffed at the possibility that Trump would do precisely what the president said he’s considering doing. “That’s not necessary,” said McConnell.

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“I don’t think the president is going to do that. And just as a practical matter, even if we passed it, why would he sign it?”

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One would hope that McConnell is familiar with the Senate’s constitutionally-mandated ability to override presidential vetoes, but perhaps he was absent that day from social studies class.

What McConnell does appear to understand is that he’s in charge of the Senate: “I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor. That’s my responsibility as the majority leader,” McConnell said. “We will not be having this on the floor of the Senate.”

Make no mistake: McConnell is giving a green light for Trump to fire the special counsel. Or in more nakedly political terms, McConnell doesn’t want to do anything that will upset the president and his supporters or force his Republican members to make a politically charged vote that could boomerang against them in November. So rather than get ahead of the president and preserve the independence of the special counsel, he’d prefer to react to Trump’s abuse of power. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he’ll even do that.

This is not the first time that McConnell has put politics first on the Russia investigation. In 2016, the Obama administration, increasingly concerned about evidence of Russian efforts to interfere in the election on behalf of Trump, went to Congress for what The Washington Post called a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against Russia’s actions. The White House wanted Congress to make “a bipartisan statement urging state and local officials to take federal help in protecting their voting-registration and balloting machines from Russian cyber-intrusions.”

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While congressional Democrats supported the effort, guess who raised doubts? You guessed it — Mitch McConnell. In fact, according to the Post’s reporting, McConnell told administration officials that he would view challenging Russia publicly to be “an act of partisan politics.”

McConnell’s threat worked. The Obama administration, wary of being seen as playing favorites in a contested presidential campaign, demurred on taking tougher steps against Moscow.

While one can (and should) be critical of Obama’s reluctance, it’s hard to think of a more egregious example of putting party ahead of country than McConnell’s behavior. In the face of clear evidence of foreign meddling in a US election, his overriding concern was the political impact on his party.

So while it’s hardly surprising that McConnell is up to his old tricks in the face of overwhelming evidence that more than 18 months later President Trump is actively seeking to obstruct justice — it doesn’t make it any less shocking.

It’s easy to view Trump as the source of America’s current political crisis, but in many ways, he is merely a symptom of the larger disease of partisanship and tribalism that people like McConnell have injected into the nation’s political bloodstream.

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For eight years during the Obama presidency, he engaged in a scorched-earth policy of legislative obstructionism that made worse the country’s economic downturn — all in pursuit of short-term political success. When he prevented the Senate from even considering the nomination of a Supreme Court justice in Obama’s last year as president, he shredded a long-standing political norm, further politicized the federal judiciary, and, in effect, stole a Supreme Court seat for the GOP. And in the face of foreign interference in America’s democratic institutions and abuses of power unlike anything seen since Watergate, McConnell has kept his eyes focused on one singular prize — the next election and the Republican Party’s political fortunes.

Maybe in the end, McConnell saves a Senate seat or two for the Republican Party. Maybe he gets to keep his job as Senate majority leader. And maybe he can keep playing his fiddle while the country around him burns.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.