It’s a subtle look, and one difficult to capture. In the many political cartoons drawn over the years, artists tend to focus on the jowls, the sunken eyes, or the thinness — rather than the trajectory — of his lips. There have been more than 650 of these comics, a fact known to McConnell and his staff because he keeps them all.
Every illustration of him bathing in a tub full of money, or making it rain dollar bills on a Senate candidate who’s gyrating in a G-string; of him as an out-of-breath tortoise who “won the race” to become President Trump’s “greatest enabler,” or sitting at a Senate desk behind the nameplate “Moscow Mitch.”
Some he hangs gleefully from the walls of his Senate office for gawking visitors. The rest, which have been flowing in at a record pace in recent years, he keeps in an archive in Louisville. McConnell, who declined an interview request for this article, has discussed turning them into a coffee-table book and scoffed when one of his staffers suggested they might have to be censored.
“There were a ton during the Obama administration, and as you can imagine, in the age of Trump there have been a lot of insane ones,” McConnell’s spokeswoman Stephanie Penn said on a tour of his office, just hours before the Senate’s impeachment trial of Trump. “But he has a good sense of humor about it. Better to have people talking about you and making fun of you than not talking about you at all.”
Such is the McConnell mantra: do what it takes to rise to power, and enjoy the criticism.
Being a man unbothered has served the 77-year-old McConnell well over the years. Immune to cries of hypocrisy, McConnell has changed stances on any number of issues since reaching public office, including his thoughts about Trump.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that he wasn’t early on the Trump bandwagon,” said Janet Mullins Grissom, McConnell’s former chief of staff and campaign manager.
But on that and much else, he is, as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), one of McConnell’s confidants in the Senate, puts it: “the ultimate pragmatist.”
It’s become a common theme in Washington to discuss what an odd partnership McConnell has forged with Trump. They do have their differences: McConnell likes to fade into the background of a room while the president demands to be the center of attention; McConnell is the consummate lever-puller, while Trump is more of a button-pusher. McConnell worked with his staff in secret to outline rules for an impeachment trial that would favor Trump, while the president sent out a record number of tweets calling the process a “sham.”
And yet, McConnell has done more for Trump than perhaps any other Republican. He helped him in 2016 by blocking the nomination of Merrick Garland and allowing Trump to dangle the Supreme Court as bait to wary Republicans. His Senate has given Trump a win to run on in 2020 by confirming, by his office’s count, 187 judges to the federal bench. This week, he willfully took on the role as the president’s most important defender against impeachment-hungry Democrats — working hand-in-glove with the White House to create a trial with no guarantee of witnesses, after having already admitted to having no intention of being a “impartial juror.”
Perhaps the answer for why is simple. In at least one way, Trump and McConnell, two politicians with shifting ideological cores, really aren’t all that different: their unyielding desire to win.
“Mitch has been as focused as anyone I’ve ever known on . . . his political power,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, his fellow Kentuckian, who, before becoming a Democrat got to know McConnell working alongside him on a Republican Senate campaign in 1968. “He gets up every day since [he was] 5 years old, and the first thing he thinks about is ‘What can I do to enhance my political power?’ ”
The first time he dealt with a president barreling toward impeachment, McConnell felt the need to say something about it.
It was the spring of 1973, and McConnell was the young and — don’t cancel your subscription — almost-handsome new chairman of the city-county Republican executive committee in Louisville, his hometown. From the time he was a boy, McConnell had designs on rising up in the party, perhaps one of the only teenagers in Kentucky who daydreamed about becoming majority leader in the U.S. Senate. (He willed his way into student council politics in high school despite, as he told his mother at the time, not “having even one friend.”)
As a 31-year-old, McConnell was a moderate: in favor of civil rights bills since the ’60s, a believer that money in politics was a “cancer,” and a seeker of union support. He and his young wife at the time had named their cat Rocky, after the centrist New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. None of this was particularly unusual for Republicans at the time, especially for an up-and-comer looking to put a fresh face on the party.
But McConnell’s news conference in the wake of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal still came as a surprise to many.
“Clearly a crisis of confidence confronts both the national administration and the Republican Party at all levels,” McConnell said at the local GOP headquarters, just one week after his election as chairman. He called the break-in at the Watergate “totally repugnant,” denounced it as an “unconscionable,” and called on Nixon to “rid the administration and the party of the ‘stench of Watergate’ by cleaning house from top to bottom.”
The party was suffering from what McConnell called a “moral crisis,” the Louisville Courier Journal reported, and he was there to help make sure Republicans began operating “within the guidelines of principle and decency.” Even if that meant calling out the behavior of the conservative administration in the White House.
A casual observer might wonder what happened over the course of the last four decades. How McConnell could go from that teller of hard truths to become President Trump’s Mitch. In almost every way he seems to have changed: The boyish Republican moderate has become the taciturn grim reaper of the Senate.
But is McConnell really that different than he was 37 years ago? His maverick demands about housecleaning in the Nixon administration were the scolds of a man on the hunt for his own real estate in Washington; now that he owns the land, he’s just looking to keep everyone off his lawn.
“Mitch has never really been a philosopher so much as an engineer,” said V. Lance Tarrance Jr., who worked as the pollster for McConnell’s first Senate run in 1984. “He’s reflecting the changes in the world. What kind of technician wouldn’t honor data?”
In this way, none of McConnell’s changes over the years feel particularly surprising. Take his view on money in politics. When the idea of trying to keep up in the fundraising game seemed daunting, the obstacle that could keep a little guy like him from gaining traction, it was a “cancer.” But when he realized his ability to raise money was an asset, well, maybe it was benign after all.
“On a more personal level, my first run for the Senate brought these issues to light in a concrete way,” McConnell once wrote. “I never would have been able to win my race if there had been a limit on the amount of money I could raise and spend.”
And as for being willing to team up with a brash, win-at-all-costs type? Tarrance had McConnell do that before, too, enlisting Roger Ailes — the future Fox News chairman who cut his teeth as Richard Nixon’s media consultant during the 1968 presidential run — to help out on his Senate campaign.
Without Ailes there might not even be a Senator McConnell. In the summer of ’84, McConnell’s campaign team was so hard up for cash that they’d taken to collect-call gimmicks to save themselves a dime when calling into the office. Knowing his campaign was in trouble, McConnell suggested to Ailes that maybe they should film some kind of ad highlighting his biography. Ailes suggested that if he wanted to win it’d be best to go hard on his opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Dee Huddleston.
And that he did. Ailes filmed a now-infamous spot in which a pack of baying bloodhounds were set loose to find the “absentee” senator, highlighting the fact that he’d missed some votes to give paid speeches.
The ad put McConnell back on the map, helping him raise enough money to stay afloat and ride into Congress on Ronald Reagan’s wave of support in Kentucky.
McConnell was grateful to Ailes, despite a partnership that could be difficult at times. McConnell was, as Tarrance put it, the “librarian” to the admaker’s “hard-charging general.” And while Ailes may have seen McConnell as “weak,” he did respect one thing.
“He found someone who wanted to win as much as he did,” said Tarrance.
In the summer of 2016, as Trump was wrapping up the Republican nomination, McConnell released his memoir: "The Long Game." The book tells the story of an ambitious politician, one who beat polio as a child, realized he could never be a professional baseball player so he entered the contact sport of politics, wanted to have his name in the history books alongside greats like Henry Clay, and has always had a true love for the Republican Party and for the machinations of Congress's upper Chamber.
Trump is not mentioned in its pages, but his name became a regular presence on the book tour.
“Does the Republican Party have an identity crisis?” the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked McConnell at the time. “Because Donald Trump said he is going to change the nature of the party.”
“I think he’ll be just fine,” McConnell responded.
It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement from a top Republican, but it wasn’t a denunciation either. There was no “moral crisis,” no “stench” to be dealt with. And, if you ask his Democratic critics, such normalizing from someone like McConnell may have made all the difference.
“He was the first to become really afraid of Trump, and his party stepped in right behind him,” said former Senate majority leader and McConnell’s old sparring partner Harry M. Reid of Nevada. Reid has said that no one “enabled” Trump more than McConnell and that he seemed to fear what getting on the wrong side of the candidate could do to his chances of keeping the Senate in Republican control. Now, in his role as keeper of the Senate trial, he has been at the forefront of protecting him.
“It’s clear Senator McConnell is hellbent on making it much more difficult to get witnesses and documents and intent on rushing the trial through,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in response to McConnell’s proposed rules for the proceedings. “On something as important as impeachment, Senator McConnell’s resolution is nothing short of a national disgrace.”
McConnell’s job has never been to do public relations for the president; his help is much more behind the scenes, much quieter. In the weeks leading up to the Senate trial he kept his proposal for the process a secret, even from many of his own members.
“He’s a man of few words, and I think that creates a mystery that works to his advantage,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “He doesn’t speak any more than he has to, which means he doesn’t tip his hand more than he needs to. Knowledge is power in war and politics.”
As to whether he’s simply doing President Trump’s bidding, McConnell would almost certainly smirk at the suggestion. But he is not a man immune to thoughts about his legacy. He does, after all, keep all those comics in an archive, alongside his many papers and an oral history (hidden from public view) that he has been compiling over the years.
“The idea that he’s Trump’s handmaiden is just ridiculous on its face,” said Mullins Grissom, McConnell’s former campaign manager. An honest view of his place in history, she said, must capture it all: his ability to transform the judiciary into something vastly more conservative, the times he’s worked behind the scenes to keep the Trump administration on track.
“His legacy will not be defined by the president,” she said. “He was here long before Trump and he’ll be here long after.”
Indeed he has a whole memoir’s worth of accomplishments. In fact, a new edition just came out last month.
This time Donald Trump makes an appearance. He wrote the foreword.