The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mitch McConnell’s forceful rejection of Trump’s election ‘conspiracy theories’

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for senators to reject the effort to “overturn" the election during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

Moments before a pro-Trump mob broke into the Capitol and forced its evacuation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put his foot down Wednesday on baseless claims that the election was somehow stolen from President Trump.

That came after he waited weeks before acknowledging that Joe Biden won the election and played along with Trump’s claims of fraud before calling Biden the president-elect in December and setting about trying to avoid what a dozen members of his caucus are doing Wednesday: objecting to the finalization of Biden’s win. Trump is now two weeks away from leaving the White House. His allies will only succeed in delaying the inevitable: Congress confirming Biden as the next president.

Here is McConnell’s speech to a joint session of Congress as its members prepared to confirm Biden’s win, annotated with our analysis. Click on the highlighted text to read the annotations.

We’re debating a step that has never been taken in American history, whether Congress should overrule the voters and overturn a presidential election. I’ve served 36 years in the Senate. This will be the most important vote I’ve ever cast.

Trump claims the election was stolen. The assertions range from specific local allegations to constitutional arguments to sweeping conspiracy theories.

I’ve supported the president’s right to use the legal system, dozens of lawsuits, perceived hearings in courtrooms all across our country. But over and over, the courts rejected these claims — including all-star judges whom the president himself has nominated. Every election we know features some illegality and irregularity, and of course that’s unacceptable. I support strong, state-led voting reforms. Last year’s bizarre pandemic procedures must not become the new norm.

But, my colleagues, nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale — the massive scale — that would have tipped the entire election. Nor can public doubt alone justify a radical break, when the doubt itself was incited without any evidence. The Constitution gives us here in Congress a limited role. We cannot simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids.

The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.

This election actually was not unusually close. Just in recent history, 1976, 2000 and 2004 were all closer than this one. The electoral college margin is almost identical to what it was in 2016. If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again. Every four years would be a scramble for power at any cost. The electoral college, which most of us on this side have been defending for years, would cease to exist, leaving many of our states with no real say at all in choosing a president. The effects would go even beyond the elections themselves.

Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth. And a shared respect for the ground rules of our system. We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities with nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.

Every time — every time in the last 30 years that Democrats have lost a presidential race, they’ve tried to challenge just like this. After 2000, after 2004, after 2016. After 2004, a senator joined and forced the same debate, and believe it or not, Democrats like Harry M. Reid, Richard J. Durbin and Hillary Clinton praised them and applauded the stunt. Republicans condemned those baseless efforts back then, and we just spent four years condemning Democrats’ shameful attempts on the validity of President Trump’s own election. So, look, there can be no double standard.

The media that is outraged today spent four years aiding and abetting Democrats’ attacks on our institutions after they lost. But we must not imitate and escalate what we repudiate. Our duty is to govern for the public good. The United States Senate has a higher calling than an endless spiral of partisan vengeance. Congress will either override the voters, overrule the voters, the states and the courts for the first time ever, or honor the people’s decision. We’ll either guarantee Democrats’ delegitimizing efforts after 2016 become a permanent new routine for both sides or declare that our nation deserves a lot better than this. We’ll either hasten down a poisonous path where only the winners of an election actually accept the results or show we can still muster the patriotic courage that our forebears showed not only in victory but in defeat.

The framers built the Senate to stop short-term passions from boiling over and melting the foundations of our republic.

So I believe protecting our constitutional order requires respecting the limits of our own power. It would be unfair and wrong to disenfranchise American voters and overrule the courts and the states on this extraordinarily thin basis. And I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing. I will vote to respect the people’s decision and defend our system of government as we know it.