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McConnell’s revealing squirm session on why he’d still back Trump

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) heads to an April 5 news conference. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

The question has stalked Republicans since the 2016 campaign: If all those horrible things you said about Donald Trump were true, how can you turn around and support him? The evolutions of the likes of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) might take the cake. But there were also many Republicans who unendorsed Trump or even called on him to drop out of the race after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, then embraced him again when he didn’t heed their calls.

Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) even invoked his inability to look his daughter in the eye and tell her what the tape said. Nineteen days later, he announced he would vote for Trump.

There’s really no great answer to the question, but rarely do you get a chance to see a lawmaker truly squirm over it. Yet on Thursday, we got to see that from one of the most un-squirm-able lawmakers in Washington: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Thanks, no surprise, to Axios’s Jonathan Swan.

Swan pressed McConnell on one of the biggest incongruences between Republicans repudiating Trump and then turning around and supporting him. In February 2021, after Trump’s second impeachment trial, McConnell delivered a remarkable indictment of the former president (even while voting against his conviction, citing what he deemed a technicality). He said that Trump had, for all intents and purposes, incited an attack on the U.S. Capitol. He blasted Trump for not quelling the unrest — instead watching it unfold “happily” — and leaving Vice President Mike Pence in danger. He called it a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”

But less than two weeks later, McConnell was asked whether he would vote for Trump again if Trump were the 2024 GOP nominee. And he said yes.

Swan began the exchange by asking the famously bare-knuckled Republican leader where he draws his “moral red lines.”

“I’d be happy to respond to any specificity that you want to apply to the term — what was it?” McConnell said.

Swan repeated his phrase, “moral red lines.”

“I’m very comfortable with my moral red line,” McConnell said.

Then Swan got to the specifics. He noted that McConnell’s February 2021 speech, against his party’s most powerful member, wasn’t an easy one to make. So why did McConnell say he would vote for Trump anyway?

“As a Republican leader of the Senate, it should not be a front-page headline that I will support the Republican nominee for president,” McConnell said.

Swan interjected: “After you said that? I think it’s astonishing.”

“I think I have an obligation to support the nominee of my party, and I will,” McConnell said.

The problem with this talking point — which, to be sure, is not just McConnell’s talking point — is that he’s effectively setting that moral red line quite far away, if not eliminating it altogether. He’s rendering himself a rank partisan, by choice. He’s saying, yes, maybe Trump provoked an attack on the Capitol and abdicated his responsibility to the country, but that’s nothing compared with being a Democrat. In other words, he’d rather have a president who incited violence — whether willingly or negligently — against his own government, reveled in that violence and tried to overturn democracy than a president who has competing policy views.

Which, okay, fine. Then say that! Own it. Unfortunately, most Republicans haven’t been pressed on that position in a fashion that lays bare the raw political calculation involved — and how it excludes other principles.

Swan kept pushing, asking whether there was anything Trump could do to lose McConnell’s 2024 support. He cited the senator’s “conflicted positions,” a characterization McConnell disagreed with.

“What I want to understand, which I haven’t heard you address— ” Swan began.

McConnell, losing patience with the line of questioning, cut in and briefly raised his voice: “Because I don’t get to pick the Republican nominee for president. They’re elected by the Republican voters.”

Swan then noted that some Republicans disagree with McConnell’s approach. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is a very conservative Republican but decided that her party doesn’t command her to support Trump — that there are other factors involved, and those factors carry the day.

McConnell cut in again: “Do you want to spend some more time on this?”

Swan said he did indeed, and McConnell laughed in apparent annoyance. Swan assured him that it wasn’t a “gotcha” question, that he wanted to hear why McConnell’s calculus differed from Cheney’s, despite their similar views of Jan. 6. “I’m just trying to understand. Is there any threshold for you—”

McConnell made clear he wasn’t interested in detailing any such threshold: “You know, I say many things I’m sure people don’t understand.”

That much is certainly true. It’s just that, in an interview in which McConnell said he had real moral red lines, he didn’t wind up saying where he drew them. Indeed, the exchange suggested he doesn’t see any role for morality in this decision. That’s the logical extension of saying you have an “obligation” to support your party’s nominee — apparently, no matter what they’ve done, or might yet do.