The clash between the two men stands to define the Republican Party for years to come and was sketched out in a recent series of dramatic public attacks — with McConnell labeling Trump as “practically and morally responsible” for the Capitol riot in a Saturday speech, followed by Trump lashing into McConnell in a Tuesday statement as a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” who should be stricken from GOP leadership.
But 10 Republican operatives interviewed Wednesday said the conflict is likely to quickly settle into a cold war, with major battles over the direction of the party to be avoided or deferred for months as leaders hope to train their fire on Democrats rather than each other.
Multiple Republicans close to McConnell said he has little interest in carrying on a back-and-forth with the former president. Having said his piece about Trump’s conduct after the election, McConnell has signaled he plans to focus his attention on opposing Democratic policies and ensuring the most electable Republicans emerge from Senate primaries next year.
It remains unsettled, however, just how far Trump will pursue his vendetta against McConnell — one that descended into baseless attacks on McConnell’s family finances and his political standing in his home state of Kentucky. Many Trump advisers believe he is wise to target McConnell as a wildly unpopular symbol of the GOP establishment — and some believe Trump can push McConnell from power.
“It doesn’t make too much sense having the least popular person in the party attacking the most popular person,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Wednesday. “I’m not sure what Mitch thinks he is going to accomplish.”
That, McConnell loyalists say, is beside the point. In his 14 years as the top Senate Republican, McConnell has rarely been a beloved figure among Republican voters and has relished becoming a lightning rod for critics as he mastered the intricacies of power politics in Washington. His office is decorated with cartoons attacking him.
“The contrast is pretty simple: Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about being liked, he cares about winning. Donald Trump cares about being liked; he cares much less about winning,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC allied with McConnell.
McConnell has not spoken with Trump since Dec. 14 — the day McConnell acknowledged President Biden won the November election — and he does not plan to ever speak with him again, people close to him say. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal details. Even the back channel the two men once had — between McConnell’s former top aide Josh Holmes and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner — is now cold.
Multiple people close to McConnell said that they did not expect the veteran Senate leader to carry his personal dispute with Trump any further. In brief interviews this week with Politico and the Wall Street Journal, he made no mention of Trump, only the need to prioritize “electability” in GOP Senate nominees for 2022.
“I would be very surprised if he ever says the words Donald Trump again,” Holmes said Wednesday. “If you told Mitch McConnell that every single day he’d receive a love letter from Donald Trump excoriating his physical appearance and ultimately he ended up with the majority in 2022, he’d take the deal in a heartbeat,” Holmes added.
More in question is Trump’s discipline. His 600-word statement Tuesday, issued through his allied Save America super PAC, came after weeks of growing fury with McConnell — who first denounced Trump’s false election fraud claims in a speech delivered moments before rioters breached the Capitol. McConnell later accused him of provoking the mob, then signaled he was openly considering convicting Trump on a Democratic impeachment charge.
McConnell ultimately voted to acquit Trump but then delivered a reproval on the Senate floor moments later, accusing the former president of “disgraceful dereliction of duty” and suggesting he ought to face further consequences in court. But Trump advisers said he was especially infuriated by an op-ed McConnell published Tuesday in the Journal, in which he laid “moral responsibility” for the riot on Trump’s shoulders and accused him of “unconscionable” behavior amid the violence, before explaining what he viewed as the constitutional basis for his acquittal vote.
Trump’s attacks on McConnell came as he plotted a broader return to the political arena. He spent Tuesday at his Florida resort with son Donald Trump Jr., former campaign aide Brad Parscale and others, and has spoken with advisers about setting up a fundraising infrastructure and database system outside the Republican Party’s, a person familiar with his comments said.
Trump called into Fox News Channel after news of Rush Limbaugh’s death broke Wednesday to praise the late conservative commentator, his first broadcast interview since leaving the White House. He again called into several conservative cable news programs, including the Sean Hannity show on Fox, later in the evening.
Some in Trump’s orbit urged him Wednesday to de-escalate with McConnell, arguing that a long fight with a skilled party leader would not be helpful to either man. But Trump has told people that taking on McConnell will be popular with his supporters and will drive favorable TV coverage.
How much he attacks McConnell going forward partially depends on what McConnell does going forward, one adviser said. Trump has also signaled his desire to target other Republicans who backed his impeachment, including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House Republican conference chairwoman.
Asked about the president’s criticisms of McConnell, whether McConnell should remain as minority leader and whether senators should continue backing McConnell, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel issued a statement noting the RNC’s narrow role “to provide resources to help Republican candidates win in the general election.”
“While there may be some criticism within the party the next few years, Republicans need to remember we have far more in common with each other than we do with the Democrats,” she said.
That is the view of multiple other GOP operatives who believe that Republicans will undoubtedly unify as the nation marches farther away from the trauma of Jan. 6 and deeper into the Biden presidency.
“The vast majority of Republicans we talk to, donors we talk to, their focus is on policy goals and outcomes,” said Law, whose group could raise $200 million or more ahead of next year’s Senate elections. “I think the dominant reality of the next 21 months is not going to be a personality contest. It’s going to be Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy opposing the agenda of the Biden administration and the [Democratic] Congress.” McCarthy (R-Calif.) is House minority leader.
What many operatives fear, however, is that Trump becomes guided by his personal grievances as the midterm elections approach — perhaps by endorsing far-right GOP candidates in swing-state Senate races, clearing the way for Democratic victories.
“It has the potential to be a very large headache for GOP Senate candidates,” said a Republican operative who worked on the 2020 Senate races, and who also expressed doubt as to whether Trump would follow through on this threats: “He’s never really put his money where his mouth is. The big thing is, will he actually help these people? Will he actually raise money? Or is he just going to go out and endorse things?”
McConnell’s political standing, meanwhile, is also in flux. In Kentucky, several county Republican committees have moved to rebuke him following his denunciation of Trump. The chairman of one county party wrote McConnell on Tuesday, demanding that he resign his leadership position over “your complete and total disdain for the will of your constituents.”
“I think he’s stirred up the hornets nest even worse. There are people that are more mad now, because it just seems kind of duplicitous to a lot of people,” said Don Thrasher, the Nelson County GOP chairman. “He is trying to straddle the fence, and he is not making anybody happy doing that.”
But having just secured a new six-year term, McConnell is well insulated from home state pressures. The more pressing concern is inside the Senate Republican ranks, where he has no obvious rival capable of winning an internal leadership battle.
Still, some Trump-loyal senators are warning McConnell to watch his step. Speaking on multiple talk radio shows this week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) blasted McConnell for his attacks on Trump and warned him that his views were out of step with most GOP senators.
“I would have liked to see Leader McConnell kind of zip his lips — you know, take your vote, issue a statement, and then we should all move on,” Johnson said Monday on “The Regular Joe Show,” which is broadcast on several Wisconsin radio stations. He added that McConnell’s criticism of Trump was “not helpful” and “just divides Republicans when we need to remain united if we’re going to push back against the radical left that’s now in power.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) used one of the biggest soapboxes in conservative media — Hannity’s nightly program — to send his own message to McConnell this week.
Graham called McConnell “indispensable to Donald Trump’s success” Tuesday, citing his work to secure a massive tax cut in 2017 and confirm three Supreme Court justices.
“But what I would say to Senator McConnell: I know Trump can be a handful, but he is the most dominant figure in the Republican Party,” he said. “We don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of taking back the majority without Donald Trump. If you don’t get that, you’re just not looking.”
Michael Scherer contributed to this report.