Republican leaders openly criticizing what Trump says is nothing new. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) endorsed Trump and then promptly disagreed with him just about every time reporters asked.
But what McConnell is up to here feels different. He's not just criticizing what Trump's saying, he's criticizing what Trump's doing. In fact, it feels at times as if McConnell is throwing doubt on Trump's entire candidacy.
We're giving McConnell -- a very savvy politician -- the benefit of the doubt that he knows his public and private pressure on Trump won't actually change Trump. So why even bother openly questioning Trump?
McConnell may not have a choice but to throw shade at Trump, says one of McConnell's confidants and former top aide, Josh Holmes. For one, reporters are asking for his opinions about the presidential race, so he has no choice but to respond.
"It's never his choice to go and talk about Donald Trump," Holmes said.
But second -- and perhaps most importantly -- McConnell's got a job to do: Keep the Senate in Republican hands. He's defending more than a dozen Republican senators who are in races that could, if things got really bad this November, be competitive. Poll after poll suggests Trump could be toxic for voters, especially in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where, coincidentally, Republicans are trying to hang onto Senate seats.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found Trump's support has plunged since he effectively clinched the nomination a month ago, handing Hillary Clinton a double-digit lead.
A recent Quinnipiac Poll had slightly better news for Trump -- he's slipping behind Clinton in Florida and Ohio and tied with Clinton in Pennsylvania. But the clear trajectory this past month for Trump has been downward. That's bad news for Senate Republicans, since recent history suggests voters tend not to split their tickets anymore. If swing voters in swing states decide to vote for Clinton, it's likely they'll decide to vote for Senate Democratic candidates as well.
Holmes said he thinks McConnell has decided the best way to give his vulnerable candidates cover is to make as little splash as possible when it comes to Trump. Pretend like Trump doesn't exist until you're asked about him, then give as close to an honest answer as you can.
Calling into question Trump's campaign fundamentals -- the amount of money he's raised, whether he sticks to a script -- is arguably less splashy than saying Trump's comments about an Indiana judge were "the textbook definition of racist." (That comment is courtesy of Ryan.)
"When he says Trump needs to raise more money, Trump needs to raise more money," Holmes said. "That's not an opinion. That's fact."
The problem with that strategy is that all roads eventually lead to the one McConnell is finding himself on: Giving an opinion. If McConnell says Trump doesn't have enough money, that he isn't a serious enough candidate, the next logical question for reporters to ask is whether McConnell thinks Trump can win. Then we get answers like this: "Trump clearly needs to change, in my opinion, to win the general election."
McConnell's strategy is born of necessity. As the highest-ranking GOP leader in the Senate, he can't walk away from his party's presidential nominee. As a smart political mind, he can't allow his party to be wholly defined by Trump's outbursts. It's not a fun line to walk, but it's McConnell's only option in the wake of Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican Party.