The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mitch McConnell’s resignation to Trumpism

President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at a rally in Kentucky together in 2019. (Philip Scott Andrews for The Washington Post)
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A remarkable exchange this week between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and reporters underscores that there isn’t anything significant that McConnell, currently the most powerful elected Republican official, can or perhaps is willing to do to seriously confront the decidedly undemocratic turn his party is taking.

On Tuesday, CNN’s Manu Raju asked McConnell: “Are you concerned at all — [are you] comfortable with your party embracing a former president whom you said was morally responsible for the January 6 attacks?”

Raju’s question is a fair one, given the signs everywhere that former president Donald Trump is still the leading figure of the party despite his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Most recently, Trump held a rally in Iowa, where he was met by an adoring crowd and adoring politicians, including Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who was very critical of Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. “I never conceded,” Trump said there of his 2020 loss, to applause.

Top Republican candidates from Nevada to Virginia have refused to say that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

So, is McConnell concerned about all this?

McConnell replied: “Well, I do think we need to be talking about the future and not the past. I think the American people are focusing on this administration, what it’s doing to the county. And it’s my hope that the ’22 election will be a referendum on the performance of the current administration, not a rehash of suggestions about what may have happened in 2020.”

McConnell isn’t endorsing his party’s embrace of Trump. But he hardly gave a full-throated response against Trumpism. Rather, he offers a gentle nudge toward dropping Trump’s false election claims that will almost certainly be ignored by many leading candidates in his party.

Compare his response to, say, that of a former Trump administration official and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, who wrote recently in the New York Times: “We are Republicans with a Plea: Elect Democrats in 2022.”

“Rational Republicans are losing the party civil war,” they wrote.

McConnell is probably Exhibit A on that front. His comments about focusing on the future echo how he and other Republican leaders have approached vaccine skeptics in their party. They encourage people to get vaccinated but haven’t spoken out forcefully against those vaccine skeptics hijacking their party, writes The Fix’s Aaron Blake.

A day after he answered a question about Trumpism in his party, McConnell and Senate Republicans blocked a voting-rights bill primarily aimed at deflecting a Republican-led effort in states to restrict who can vote, and in some cases, to give some of the power to certify results to Republican state lawmakers.

McConnell is no fan of Trump’s. He was said to be furious with him after the Jan. 6 insurrection; he doesn’t plan to ever speak to Trump again, The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis reported. He voted against convicting Trump in the president’s second impeachment trial, but he publicly said the president’s actions around Jan. 6 were disgraceful. Trump, in return, has let loose with his attacks on McConnell, most recently accusing the senator from Kentucky of folding by providing Republican support for a procedural vote in the Senate to lift the debt ceiling.

But McConnell is also a shrewd politician who recognizes that his ability to return to leading the Senate rests largely on Republican base voters — now dominated by Trump supporters — coming out to vote for his candidates in next year’s Senate elections.

“I don’t know whether I’m going to be the majority leader or the minority leader,” he said in November as control of the Senate hung in the balance. “I’ve been both. The majority is better.”

Earlier this year, McConnell privately expressed the view that Trump is a brand on its way out, according to a book, “Peril,” by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa:

“There is a clear trend moving,” McConnell said, toward a place where the Republican Party is not dominated by Trump. “Sucking up to Donald Trump is not a strategy that works.”

As Trump’s potential 2024 presidential run becomes more likely, it’s tempting to conclude that he has regained his hold on the Republican Party from those early months when he was out of the White House.

But it’s probably more accurate to say that his grip never weakened.

McConnell appears to be the embodiment of that dynamic. He knows Trump probably hurts his efforts to regain the Senate majority next year, but McConnell also recognizes he needs Trump to make a go at winning.

(McConnell is, somewhat surprisingly, on board with a number of Trumpian Senate candidates, telling Politico of one in Alabama: “He’s a Republican, isn’t he? The magic number is 51.”)

And as a result, McConnell refuses to say what he really thinks of Trump because he recognizes the former president is here to stay in Republican politics.