Safely huddled with Democratic leaders as they watched video of police battling Trump supporters in the Capitol, McConnell reacted with anger and revulsion, according to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who was also in the secure location.
“I thought to myself, 'This could be a transformative moment. He appears to have taken this very seriously,’ ” recalled Durbin, who spent hours that day holed up with the Republican leader.
But when it came time to hold Trump to account, McConnell backed off. While seven GOP senators voted to convict Trump following his impeachment by the House for inciting an insurrection, McConnell supported acquittal, ensuring Trump would face no formal penalty for inciting an insurrection.
Ten months later, Trump is once again dominating the Republican Party, expected to run again in 2024 — and utterly disdainful of the Senate leader who helped save him. Trump dismissed McConnell as a “stupid person” and suggested his favored 2022 Senate candidates should oust McConnell from his leadership post when they get to Washington.
McConnell is not a “real leader” because “he didn’t fight for the presidency,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post.
For many of his 36 years in the Senate, Addison Mitchell McConnell III has cultivated an image as a master political and legislative tactician, a consummate insider who knows how to gain power and use it to the fullest. He was credited with masterminding Republican victories when he ran Senate campaign strategy in the late 1990s, rising to party leader and leveraging chamber rules to thwart much of President Barack Obama’s agenda and to block judicial nominees, including a key Supreme Court seat. He used his fundraising prowess to anoint favored Senate candidates with the best chances of winning while undercutting fringe figures who might be less palatable. Under Trump, McConnell ushered hundreds of conservative judges to the federal bench, an achievement many saw as an indication of McConnell’s ability to work his influence over an inexperienced administration.
Yet in the months since the Jan. 6 attack, a different portrait of McConnell has taken shape. At 79, safely reelected last year to a seventh term and in his 16th year as the Senate’s top Republican, McConnell is nonetheless increasingly playing the role of a conflicted and compromised booster of Trump’s interests — not a leader with his own vision.
McConnell’s vote on impeachment, which infuriated some of his closest backers, made clear his calculus that he couldn’t challenge Trump, even at the former president’s most vulnerable moment, a sign of the MAGA hold on the party electorate and many in McConnell’s own caucus. He opposed a bipartisan Jan. 6 investigation, blocked three bills Democrats put forward to counter restrictive GOP voting laws driven by Trump’s false fraud claims and endorsed a Trump-backed 2022 Senate candidate who echoed the false claim that the election was stolen.
To top it all off, McConnell has pledged to vote for Trump if he’s a 2024 nominee. Asked by The Post in an interview whether he would support Trump as the nominee “no matter what he’s done,” McConnell said he would “obviously” back the GOP’s presidential pick. How could he square that pledge with saying Trump had caused an insurrection? McConnell said it was “pretty simple,” because he would follow his party’s wishes.
“My guess is what happened is the tides changed and he realized there wasn’t support [to convict] in the caucus,” said Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s former secretary of state, whom McConnell once unsuccessfully endorsed in a Senate race against Rand Paul. “Sometimes leaders lead, and sometimes they have to follow some people that are trying to lead. And I guess that’s what happened.”
This account of how one of Washington’s longtime Republican power players succumbed to the preeminence of Trump is based on interviews with McConnell, his former and current Senate colleagues and others who have known him over the years, as well as with Trump and other officials. The Post reviewed McConnell’s memoir, his writings, speeches, tweets and other pronouncements, and his Senate record.
The examination found that McConnell’s actions after Jan. 6 followed a long pattern in his political career, which began as a congressional intern in 1963. He has reversed course on issues ranging from campaign finance to voting rights, moving hard to the right as the Republican Party changed around him. His guiding principle has been power — acquiring it and keeping it — not an ideological adherence to policy, say those who knew him early in his career.
McConnell said in the interview that he is proud of the stands he has taken, pointing to some at odds with conventional Republican thinking, such as opposing a ban on burning American flags and supporting the Democrats’ infrastructure bill. Those stands mean that “the extreme elements of your own party are not going to like it,” he said. “And there are other times when you are engaged in activities that are applauded by them.”
Just two years ago, seemingly at the pinnacle of his power, McConnell could hardly have foreseen himself in such a precarious position. Midway through Trump’s term, the veteran lawmaker released a new version of his autobiography, which described his rise in the Senate in heroic terms. The book opened with a new glowing foreword penned by Trump, who lavished praise on McConnell as his “ace in the hole” and wrote that he “couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”
Except Trump never actually wrote those words — at least according to the ex-president, who now mocks McConnell’s role in pursuing his agenda. In an interview with The Post, Trump said McConnell actually wrote that foreword and simply used the president’s name on the passage.
Trump said he told McConnell, “Why don’t you write it for me and I’ll put it in, Mitch? Because that’s the way life works.”
McConnell, asked if Trump’s account was accurate, did not dispute it. “I really don’t have anything to add related to him,” McConnell said.
His father’s plea on voting rights
As McConnell tells his story, his politics were shaped by the stirring words of his father, who had witnessed Black people facing racism and being denied their voting rights while growing up in segregated Alabama.
“A lot of us went to battle because some people didn’t believe in the ‘one man, one vote’ rule,” A.M. McConnell, a World War II veteran who worked as a manager for DuPont, wrote to his son, according to a letter excerpted in “The Long Game,” McConnell’s 2016 autobiography. “I hope you never forget the importance of every single one of us … each man has their right to stand up and be counted.”
McConnell wrote that his father’s words had a deep impact. Around that time, McConnell was a leader of young Republicans on the University of Louisville campus, and he had enthusiastically introduced the party’s 1964 presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, at a school speech.
But, McConnell later wrote, he was “extremely disappointed” that Goldwater voted against the civil rights bill, which put the senator “on the wrong side of such an important issue — if not the most important issue of my generation.” He said that “so great was my anger” that he voted for the Democrat, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The year after the civil rights bill passed, McConnell, who had worked for two members of Congress from Kentucky, was at the Capitol to witness Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. McConnell listened as Johnson said that “millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote.” McConnell wrote that he was overwhelmed by the bipartisan support for the law, and he solidified his identification as a liberal-to-moderate Republican.
But it was also clear early on to those who knew McConnell that ideals meant far less to him than power.
In the summer of 1968, while working for Marlow Cook’s Senate campaign, the 26-year-old McConnell spent months driving around Kentucky with another volunteer, John Yarmuth. What struck Yarmuth then and now is he didn’t know of any issue that animated McConnell’s thirst for politics other than winning an election.
“He never wanted to change the world. This is all about being, not doing,” Yarmuth said. As a result, he argued, McConnell has been willing to do whatever it took to win favor. While Yarmuth became a Democrat, founded an alt-weekly and later won election to Congress in 2006 to represent Louisville, McConnell moved further to the right along with the party.
“He clearly doesn’t care about being labeled a hypocrite. It just doesn’t bother him. He is brazen about it,” said Yarmuth, who said he rarely interacts anymore with McConnell even though both lawmakers live in the same area. “That’s one of the cynical sides of Mitch. He doesn’t care. If it’s expedient, he’ll do it.”
Over the years, McConnell has reversed course when he saw a political advantage. He once portrayed himself as a campaign reformer who in a 1973 op-ed called for the “complete disclosure of ALL donors, regardless of the size of their contributions,” but then he went to oppose legislation requiring disclosure of “dark money” donors to nonprofit groups.
Similarly, McConnell voted for a 1990 environmental bill that targeted coal-burning plant emissions, saying: “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.” But he has now become one of the leading opponents of climate change legislation, stressing concern about its impact on Kentucky’s industry.
Most consequentially, McConnell has shifted significantly on voting rights. As recently as 2006, McConnell supported an updated version of the Voting Rights Act, along with every other senator in what used to be a symbol of bipartisanship. He also was a co-author of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which established federal standards for how states administer elections.
McConnell’s view of an expansive federal role in elections, however, would soon change.
Fears of the tea party and Trump
McConnell had long been wary of Trump — even drawing a line straight back to his opposition to Goldwater as a student. He told CNN in 2016 that he was worried Trump would alienate Hispanic voters the way Goldwater lost Black votes by opposing the Civil Rights Act. Trump’s “attacks” on prominent Hispanics were a “big mistake,” McConnell said at the time. He said the general election was a choice “between two very unpopular candidates, very unpopular.”
But after Trump won, McConnell rapidly got over those concerns. That’s a path he has followed repeatedly as a Senate leader — bowing to the extremes of his party whenever it became clear they would win.
McConnell found himself targeted by the rising tea party movement, which derided him for playing a key role in 2008 for helping to bail out some financial institutions in the wake of the financial crisis. His admirers lauded the bipartisan effort. “He got it through the Senate ... because he understood the importance of getting this done, of governing,” said former senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who worked with McConnell on the effort.
After the tea party blasted McConnell as too moderate and willing to work with Democrats, he bemoaned the “Republican-on-Republican violence.” He was so worried about the movement’s rightward tilt that he injected himself in his home state Senate race, endorsing Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state, over the libertarian Rand Paul, who became a tea party leader.
But after Paul beat Grayson by 23 points, McConnell got over his fears of extremism and backed Paul.
After Republicans won enough seats to make McConnell majority leader in 2015, he used his newfound power to refuse to allow a hearing on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, leaving the seat to be filled by whoever won the 2016 election. Some analysts say that played a major role in boosting Trump’s support among White evangelicals, who backed him by a margin of 81 to 16 percent.
After Trump’s win, McConnell realized he and the new president could get much of what they wanted without Democratic support. For example, despite writing in his memoir that “Americans believe that on issues of great importance, one party shouldn’t be allowed to force its will on everyone else,” he pushed through Trump’s tax cuts on a party-line vote. McConnell also played a key role in Trump’s successful nomination in one term of 226 judges, including three Supreme Court justices, compared with 320 put on the courts by Obama during two terms, according to the Pew Research Center.
“If I don’t get elected, McConnell has no judges, McConnell has no anything,” Trump told The Post in an interview.
When Democrats tried to use the filibuster to block Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, McConnell used the “nuclear option” — changing the rules to prevent that from happening.
“His goal in life was to give lifetime appointments to judges approved by the Federalist Society,” said Durbin, referring to a conservative group that recommended judicial nominees to Trump. “And he set that out as a singular goal and nothing else mattered.”
By the time Trump faced his first impeachment trial in 2019, the pair had reached an understanding of mutual self-interest. McConnell declared that Trump would be acquitted in the impeachment case, even though the trial was weeks away.
But that partnership imploded in December as McConnell focused on the issue that mattered to him most: Senate control. With two special elections looming in Georgia, McConnell and his allies worried Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen would backfire by depressing turnout of GOP voters who believed the system was fraudulent.
McConnell had won his 2020 race by nearly 20 percentage points, although Trump claimed without evidence that it happened only because of his endorsement. Trump, meanwhile, lost the popular vote by more than four percentage points and the electoral college by 306 to 232, but he falsely claimed victory, as he maintains to this day.
McConnell had given hope to Trump’s backers by saying the president was “100 percent within his rights” to exhaust every legal avenue to contest the election. But after the electoral college announced its result, McConnell took to the Senate floor Dec. 15 to congratulate Biden.
McConnell spoke on the phone with Trump to explain his announcement, but the president erupted in anger. Trump insisted he had won, uttered expletives and accused him of disloyalty, and McConnell responded, “You lost the election” and hung up, according to “Peril,” a book by Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. (McConnell, asked in the interview about that account, said, “That pretty well covers it.”)
Three weeks later, the two Democrats won in Georgia, turning McConnell into the minority leader, followed by the Jan. 6 insurrection. McConnell said in the interview that as he watched footage from his secure location of the attack, “I was intent that we got back in session at 8 p.m. in prime time to finish the job, so the American people would know that the insurrection had failed.”
With Biden’s election now formalized by Congress, the animosity between McConnell and Trump exploded in public. In the days that followed, McConnell blamed the president for the insurrection. Trump in the interview with The Post blamed McConnell for the Georgia losses and for his inability to overturn the election.
“He didn’t fight at all,” Trump said in the interview about McConnell’s declaration that Biden won the presidency. “He gave up immediately.”
Even as he voted to acquit Trump, McConnell seemed to ratify the Democratic case that the president had incited the attack. “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” McConnell said Feb. 13. But, after insisting the impeachment trial be held after Trump’s term ended, he then argued it was not an option to convict a former president — a rationale rejected by all Democrats and seven Republicans.
Pressed in the interview whether he would have voted to convict if the trial had been held before Trump left office, McConnell declined to respond directly, saying he had spoken about Trump at the time and “I don’t have anything I can say now that would improve upon what I said.”
McConnell’s decision stood in contrast to that taken by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who voted to impeach Trump and said he posed a “continuing danger to our system” by failing to concede. Cheney was ousted from her third-ranking House leadership position and replaced with a Trump backer.
Durbin said he believed McConnell had made a political decision in acquitting Trump, not a legal one.
“Now he’s looking at Trump, not in the rearview mirror, but looking through the windshield and realizing he’s going to have to live with this man in the Republican Party for the foreseeable future,” Durbin said.
The maneuver left some longtime backers furious. McConnell’s once-admiring biographer, John David Dyche, has recanted the accolades he once bestowed in his 2009 book, “Republican Leader.”
“Cowardly, cynical, dishonorable, pathetic & wrong,” Dyche tweeted after McConnell decided to acquit Trump. “He has been, is & will live in infamy as ‘Trump’s principal enabler.’ Will be a shameful but fitting epitaph.” (Dyche declined to comment. McConnell said in the interview that Dyche had turned against the Republican Party.)
If condemning Trump while acquitting him was meant to thread a needle to broker peace in the GOP, it hasn’t worked. The insurrection is now celebrated in many corners of the Republican Party. And Trump, who has never forgiven McConnell for certifying the election, has lashed out time and again.
In recent weeks, the former president has doubled down on efforts to oust McConnell. After McConnell garnered enough Republican support to help Democrats temporarily increase the debt ceiling last month, Trump told Fox News on Oct. 7 that “the Republican Senate needs new leadership. Mitch is not the guy, not the right guy, he’s not doing the job.” At least one GOP Senate candidate, former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, has said he would seek to oust McConnell from the leadership if he wins.
Asked why no sitting Republican senators have agreed with his demands to date, Trump pointed to McConnell’s connection to groups that collect hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at swaying elections. “McConnell is only a leader because he raises a lot of money,” Trump said. “You know, with the senators, that’s how it is, frankly. That’s his primary power.”
McConnell, meanwhile, has continued to accede to Trump’s wishes. Last month, he endorsed Trump’s pick for the Republican Senate nominee in Georgia, Herschel Walker — a candidate whom McConnell and his allies reportedly had reservations about supporting. And he said he would not support Democratic efforts to raise the debt ceiling when the issue comes up in December, following the view of Trumpists in his party and potentially setting the stage for a fiscal crisis.
Scott Jennings, a former campaign adviser to McConnell, said understanding his former boss, and the relationship with Trump, entails a “psychological study about how what each of these two guys think is the point of politics.”
“Trump’s motivation is personal, maybe to become president again, get revenge of people who wronged him. It’s not ‘did we enact stuff,’ but ‘did we glorify Trump?’ ” Jennings said.
McConnell’s motivation, Jennings said, “is impersonal. It’s only to win back the Senate for the purpose of enacting Republican stuff or blocking Democrat stuff, because without control, we can’t do anything. And if you didn’t do any of those things, then you failed.”
A consequential choice
More than a half-century after he first arrived at the Capitol as an intern, McConnell has spent much of his life as a political shape-shifter, molding himself to fit the moment, from moderate to conservative, from reformer to anti-reformer, fighting against Democrats on one side and Trumpists on the other. He is said by many who know him to be especially concerned about his legacy, and that brings his story full circle. In the end, his decisions to help Trump avoid a Senate conviction and to stop new voting protections may be his most consequential and, to his critics, his most troubling acts.
As McConnell witnessed Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the president’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, was also in the crowd. In 2008, she and McConnell both spoke in the Capitol Rotunda at a celebration of the 100th anniversary of her father’s birth.
She recalled in an interview asking her father about the role of the Republican leader at the time, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who supported the civil rights and voting bills. Without Dirksen, the president told his daughter, “We’d have a bill but not a law.”
Luci Baines Johnson now says McConnell is working to undo her father’s legacy. Unlike Dirksen’s approach, compromise “doesn’t seem to be the position that many on the opposite side embrace today, including Sen. McConnell,” Luci Baines Johnson said. “It breaks my heart to see essentially the heart of the Voting Rights Act gutted.”
McConnell, asked about her criticism, said, “I would say to Luci, ‘The Voting Rights Act that your father signed was successful, it is still intact and Americans are not being denied the right to vote anywhere in America on the basis of race.’ ”
McConnell, in his speech at the anniversary celebration in 2008, never mentioned that he had voted for Johnson or that he had been so angry at Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights legislation.
Instead, he told the audience of congressional leaders and Johnson descendants a lesson he had learned from the man who preceded him as a “master of the Senate.”
“Lyndon B. Johnson knew to amass power,” McConnell said, “and how to use it.”
The power McConnell now holds dovetails with helping Trump. And few efforts are more important to the former president and the GOP than blocking Democratic measures to expand voting rights and protections.
While Democrats sought to expand ballot access after the insurrection, many Republicans pushed in the opposite direction, emboldened by Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud. The House in March passed the For the People Act, which would create automatic voter registration and require disclosure of “dark money” donors, among other changes. Biden urged passage of the bill, calling the conflict over voting the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”
As the fight moved to the Senate, among those urging passage of the measure, known as H.R. 1, was McConnell’s daughter, Porter, who is the campaign director for Take on Wall Street, an advocacy group that says it is battling “the predatory power of big Wall Street banks and billionaires.”
In a little-noticed tweet on Feb. 25, Porter McConnell alluded to the importance of the decision facing her father: “Since the election, legislators have filed 106 bills to make it harder to cast a ballot. We need to pass #HR1 & fight like hell against these bills. Because if they win, we can kiss democracy goodbye for another generation.” (Porter McConnell declined to comment.)
Two weeks later, Mitch McConnell rebutted the view expressed by his daughter, without naming her, and many Democrats. He wrote on Twitter, “House Democrats’ H.R. 1 is a partisan assault on elections,” calling it a “dramatic one-party power grab.”
Asked about his daughter’s tweet, McConnell declined to respond directly. Instead, he said many proposed voting bills in state legislatures haven’t passed and expressed support for those that did.
McConnell has also lashed out at business leaders who have protested the GOP voting bills. “My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said in April. It was “stupid” for them to take stances on divisive issues, he said, adding that “will invite serious consequences.” He hastened to add that he still wanted their money: “I’m not talking about political contributions.”
The For the People Act soon died in the Senate, with McConnell threatening a filibuster. McConnell then led an October filibuster to kill a slimmed-down compromise version of the bill, known as the Freedom to Vote Act, which had been backed by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).
Then on Wednesday, McConnell successfully led a filibuster against a third measure, a House-passed bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). It had been designed to restore some of the protections in the original Voting Rights Act, which has been weakened in two Supreme Court decisions since 2013.
To justify his opposition, McConnell argued that voting laws are not a “federal issue,” notwithstanding his long support for a federal role in elections. He also disputed that GOP voting bills are designed to suppress Black and minority votes, saying in the interview that the Voting Rights Act still forbids discriminatory practices — although some of those protections have been significantly watered down by the Supreme Court.
“I am not saying racism no longer exists,” McConnell said in the interview. “I’m saying that there’s no evidence anywhere in America that people are being prevented from voting on the basis of race.”
McConnell, who has rejected Trump’s assertion that the election was fraudulent, nonetheless went on to echo a key Trump claim, saying, “There is considerable evidence that voter fraud still exists. [Democrats] act like it is nonexistent.” In fact, voter fraud is rare, and dozens of court challenges and several extensive state ballot reviews have produced no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Indeed, McConnell acknowledged later in the interview that it is “fairly rare” due to ballot security measures.
For now, McConnell is focused on doing whatever is necessary to regain Senate control — and his own power.
“You might have noticed I’m no longer the majority leader in setting the agenda in the Senate,” McConnell said. “I hope to be again sometime.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.