The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and his allies target McConnell over deal to avoid default

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to his office after a Republican luncheon Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Thursday’s debt-limit deal has prompted a new round of attacks on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by former president Donald Trump and his supporters, highlighting McConnell’s beleaguered role in a party where Trump remains the most powerful force.

“Looks like Mitch McConnell is folding to the Democrats, again,” Trump said in a statement issued through his Save America PAC. “He’s got all of the cards with the debt ceiling, it’s time to play the hand. Don’t let them destroy our Country!”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, described McConnell’s deal as an abject surrender to the Democrats. “I don’t understand why we as Republicans are folding here,” he said. “This is a complete capitulation.”

And on his “War Room” podcast, former Trump White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon criticized McConnell at length, deriding him as “the genius from Kentucky, the country lawyer” and urging listeners to register their disapproval with McConnell because he “caved” on the debt ceiling.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders agreed on Oct. 7 to increase the debt ceiling by $480 billion through early December. (Video: Reuters)

McConnell’s office declined to comment Thursday on the critiques.

Debt ceiling fight explained

The attacks reflect McConnell’s contradictory, difficult role in the Republican Party. He is its top elected leader, running its Senate wing and leading the charge against the Democratic agenda. Yet he is openly reviled by the former Republican president, who is also the party’s most influential figure, with millions of followers, and its potential 2024 presidential nominee.

The renewed barrage by Trump and his allies is part of a bid by the former president to turn Republicans against the senator from Kentucky and oust him as the party’s leader in the Senate. And it marks the latest effort by Trump to retaliate against his critics, since McConnell said after the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that Trump was “practically and morally responsible.”

During Trump’s presidency, he and McConnell often had a mutually beneficial political relationship, especially when it came to confirming Trump-nominated judges.

But any amity came to an abrupt end after McConnell recognized Joe Biden as the duly elected president following the ratification of his victory by the electoral college on Dec. 15, 2020.

McConnell has hardly been an outspoken Trump opponent. He has not criticized Trump since his statement shortly after the Capitol assault, and has at times made conciliatory remarks, such as promising to support Trump if he is the Republican presidential nominee in the next election.

That has done little to placate the former president or his followers. Their fury erupted again when McConnell proposed a deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to avoid a looming government default by raising the debt limit for two months.

The pro-Trump camp viewed this as giving the Democrats an escape hatch from a political dilemma, since raising the debt limit is never popular. But economists say that if a default occurs, it would torpedo the economy and cause hardship for millions of ordinary Americans.

“This is what you get when you have hapless, feckless leadership,” Bannon said on Wednesday’s episode of his podcast, titled “McConnell’s Betrayal of America Will Create Debt Slaves.” Bannon told his listeners, “I want you to call his office — call his office in Kentucky — and I want you to let him know what you think.”

Joining Bannon on the podcast, Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide who is currently advising Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens, also tore into McConnell, describing his actions as “pathetic.”

“This makes me think: Does Mitch McConnell care more about opposing the Democrats or opposing the MAGA movement, opposing the MAGA posse, opposing Donald J. Trump?” Epshteyn said. “Because that’s what this is all about.”

“Amen,” Bannon replied.

Some sharply attacked the deal without naming the senator who crafted and promoted it.

“I believe it was a mistake to offer this deal,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), adding that two days ago “Schumer was on the verge of surrender. And unfortunately the deal that was put on the table was a lifeline for Schumer.”

Greitens, who resigned as Missouri governor in 2018 amid allegations that he hit, groped and coerced a woman into sexual contact, said last month that if he wins election to the Senate he will not support McConnell as Republican leader.

Many of the Republicans running in Senate primaries have gone out of their way to court Trump’s support, including by backing his false claims about the 2020 election, but so far only Greitens has joined him in condemning the Kentucky Republican.

But if Trump is the 2024 Republican nominee and potentially reclaims the White House, his hostility toward McConnell would create a grave challenge for McConnell. The minority leader declined to respond last month when asked about a Wall Street Journal report that Trump had been talking to Republicans about deposing him.

Trump has taken to excoriating McConnell whenever the senator takes anything less than a scorched-earth approach to governing. After McConnell criticized Trump’s actions leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, the then-president called him “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”

When a bipartisan group of senators reached an infrastructure deal in June, Trump issued a sarcastic statement saying, “Thanks Mitch! New leadership is needed, and fast!” At another point he called McConnell a “dumb son of a bitch.”

Trump-vs.-McConnell threatens to become a cold war

For now, GOP senators are caught between a battle-scarred leader who has taken them through many fights and an ex-president who retains passionate support among the party’s base.

McConnell’s defenders describe the debt deal as clever strategy, saying he called the bluff of Democrats complaining that Republicans were not giving them enough time to raise the debt ceiling. The agreement ensures that Democrats must wrestle with the issue for two more months, they said.

Democrats, though, exulted that McConnell had “caved” by agreeing to the extension after initially saying he would not budge, and some Republicans privately agreed. Democrats said McConnell had blinked when confronting the political repercussions of pushing the government toward default.

Many Senate Republicans reacted Thursday by declining to criticize McConnell while also making it clear they would not vote for the deal he had just negotiated.

In an exchange with a reporter, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) called McConnell’s deal a “pretty elegant” solution — but said he still planned to vote against it because that’s what his constituents would want him to do.

He said Trump’s statement attacking McConnell had not affected his thinking on the matter, arguing that the perception that Republicans had “caved” would exist regardless what the former president said.

“I think [Trump’s] sentiment that he expressed is part of the calculation for every Republican senator,” Cramer said. “There’s just no question. I don’t think the fact he said it changes anything.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said that he also would not vote to raise the debt limit but would not object if a deal were reached to raise it by unanimous consent. He called the move “a punt, there’s no doubt about it,” since the issue will now arise again in two months.

But Johnson also gently pushed back against Trump’s criticism of McConnell, saying that the former president is not the one who is confronting tough decisions about how to handle the government’s potential default.

“He’s not here right now,” Johnson said of Trump. “So we’re having to deal with this, okay?”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he had not yet decided how he would vote. Asked about Trump’s broadside against McConnell, Rounds argued that the minority leader was acting strategically to eventually put the pressure back on Democrats.

“I can just tell you that Mitch McConnell has been straightforward with us, and the goals that we laid out to make Democrats accountable for a dollar amount certain is what exactly is in the works right now,” Rounds said.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), too, defended the move as a strategic one that will wind up playing in Republicans’ favor.

“We’ve all held firm together that they’re going to have to do it themselves,” Braun said of Democrats lifting the debt ceiling. “Some think that by having this delay, it’s a sign of weakness. I don’t think so.”

Still, he added that “ideally” there would not have been a delay. “Our goal was to get them in a spot where they’d lift [the debt ceiling] on their own,” Braun said. “And, to me, if we stand in the way, that’s silly.”