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A Pointless War Against Mitch McConnell

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U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reacts while speaking to reporters following the Senate Republicans weekly policy lunch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

Three days after winning acquittal in his second impeachment trial, President Trump issued a scathing attack on the one Senator who, as much as anyone, had made his victory possible.

Describing Mitch McConnell as “a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack”, Trump demanded his urgent removal as Senate Republican leader after fifteen years of service. “If Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” the former chief executive proclaimed in his blistering 600-word statement in February 2021. “We know our America First agenda is a winner, not McConnell’s Beltway First agenda…”

In the year-and-a-half since this initial blast, Trump’s hostility has only intensified, with his frequently expressed determination to drive McConnell from his leadership post and, if possible, out of politics altogether – despite the Kentuckian’s loyal support at moments of maximum danger. The second impeachment trial, for instance ended with a clear majority of the Senate voting to convict the president, thereby banning him from seeking or holding public office for the rest of his life.  Had McConnell joined the seven Republicans who supported a “guilty” verdict it’s conceivable, perhaps even probable, he could have swayed the six more of his 49 colleagues needed to tip the scales to conviction.

Even more striking, McConnell played the decisive role in blocking Senate approval for a federal commission to investigate the January 6th riot in which Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill. As the May 19, 2021 headline in Politico reported: “McConnell Turns Republicans Against Jan. 6th Commission.” Without his determined opposition to Nancy Pelosi’s idea, it’s easy to imagine five more GOP Senators joining him (and 35 Republicans in the House) in clearing a filibuster and establishing the bi-partisan investigation.

This strategy may have worked better than the current House Select Committee led by Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney, but Trump mightily opposed it and, despite all the vitriolic insults to the “sullen and unsmiling political hack,” that Kentucky Senator backed up his party’s president. He has, in fact, conspicuously restrained himself and avoided any rhetorical return-fire, even while the former president enthusiastically reviles him at nearly all of his boisterous rallies. “The Republican Party can never be respected or strong with ‘leaders’ like Sen. Mitch McConnell at its helm,” he proclaimed in his post-impeachment statement, going on to decry “his lack of political insight, wisdom, skill and personality.”

The most absurd aspect of this anomalous and unbalanced situation involves the achievement which nearly all Trump loyalists celebrate as the pinnacle of their hero’s presidential leadership: the successful installation of three distinguished and distinctly conservative jurists on the Supreme Court of the United States. Without McConnell’s unstinting assistance and determined support, one of those appointments would have been difficult and dubious, while the other two would have been altogether unthinkable.

When Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly and unexpectedly in February of 2016, with more than eleven months left of the Obama administration, it was McConnell’s insistence that the seat remain open till the selection of a new president that enabled Neal Gorsuch to ascend to the court in the next year. Trump, as a long-shot competitor for the presidential nomination, deserved neither credit nor blame for the Senate delaying its consideration of Obama’s selection of Judge Merrick Garland for a place on the court until after the arrival of a new administration.

It was also McConnell, who still commanded a slender Senate majority in 2020, when he speedily and expertly guided the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barret in October of 2020, enabling her to take her seat just a week before the presidential election – which Trump lost, of course, despite his persistent protests to the contrary.

Even Brett Kavanaugh, who joined the court near the midpoint of Trump’s term, needed McConnell’s skill to overcome scurrilous charges against him and to win the closest Supreme Court nomination vote (50 to 48) since 1881.

Some historians will no doubt look askance at the remaking of the Supreme Court during the Trump administration, but it represents the height of irony and inconsistency for the MAGA minions and for Trump himself to ignore the Senator’s indispensable role in the former president’s most celebrated achievement.

The continued derision which Trump aims at “Broken Old Crow Mitch McConnell” (his most recently designated nickname for the veteran Senate leader) not only requires historical amnesia but, considering the Senator’s past importance in the administration’s most vaunted successes, a truly monumental level of ingratitude. Moreover, it underlines one of the most important distinctions for evaluation of our major politicians.

The greatest figures of our past – from Washington and Lincoln, to both Roosevelts, to Reagan – have displayed a remarkable knack for turning enemies into friends, opponents into allies, adversaries into admirers.  Meanwhile, the most polarizing and disruptive leaders display the opposite instinct by converting colleagues into antagonists, necessary collaborators into bitter rivals. Even worse, these festering divisions seldom reflect substantive divisions on major issues or ideology but arise instead through spite and personality clashes.

If, as expected, former President Trump persists with his plans to recapture the White House, and simultaneously extends his self-destructive hostility to his own party’s Senate leader, he will not only undermine his personal ambitions but spoil the nation’s hopes of raising our politics to a more cooperative, constructive and consequential level.


(Shortly after Michael posted this column, President Trump issued another attack on Mitch McConnell, describing him–eloquently–as a ‘disloyal sleaze bag.’)

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