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Mitch's Regrets

Mitch McConnell’s Ongoing Trump Bedevilment Is Self-Inflicted

The longtime Senate GOP leader had the chance to put an end to the former president’s poisonous hold on his party, but he chickened out.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Mitch McConnell in 2017

One would not, in ordinary political circumstances, expect Florida Senator Rick Scott to see this moment as his opportunity to climb the ranks of Senate Republican leadership. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, Scott oversaw disastrous midterm Senate elections. Dealt a good hand—an unpopular president, horrible inflation, the perception of rising crime, and a record fundraising haul—Scott managed to play it badly, frittering away hundreds of millions on lackluster candidates. Questions about his use of campaign cash have swirled for weeks; on Wednesday, his Republican colleagues Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee suggested that the NRSC be audited.

In the lead-up to last week’s midterm elections, Scott was poised to challenge Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to be the Senate’s GOP leader, even going as far as cutting a campaign video. Per Politico, the idea wasn’t to win—McConnell’s reelection was never really in doubt—but to channel “the anger of grassroots conservatives, and the former president, who were peeved at McConnell’s criticism of the ‘candidate quality’ of this year’s roster of Senate GOP candidates.” The idea was to position Scott as the leader of the Senate’s true believers and to chide the minority leader for failing to back triumphant candidates in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, and Georgia. But when the dust settled, only one of those nominees had won outright: J.D. Vance in Ohio. Three lost, while Herschel Walker is in a runoff in Georgia.

And yet Scott challenged McConnell anyway—the first opponent McConnell has faced in a leadership race since 1998, when he first won the position Scott now holds: NRSC chairman. That year, McConnell bested future Obama administration Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. McConnell likely never broke a sweat rebuffing Scott. His final margin of victory was a comfortable 37–10. Hardline conservatives such as Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Josh Hawley, Mike Lee, and Lindsey Graham were among those who voted for Scott, surely knowing he was destined to lose. It was, in some ways, a classic McConnell victory: Everybody hates him—and yet, somehow he wins anyway.

But it also points to both just how fraught McConnell’s position within his caucus is—and how little you gain from assisting Donald Trump. Two years ago, McConnell was gifted an opportunity to rid himself of the man he had labeled “crazy” after rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. He chose not to take it, deciding against either lobbying his fellow Republicans to convict the former president for his role in the insurrection or giving them political cover by casting such a vote himself. “I didn’t get to be leader by voting with five people in the conference,” McConnell reportedly said at the time, a quote that sums up his approach to leadership, politics, and morality.

A Senate conviction would have barred Trump from serving in federal office again, effectively crippling his political career. Now McConnell is being thanked for his service by Trump persisting, again, as a thorn in his side. With the former president’s third campaign now officially underway, things will get even worse for McConnell.

On January 19, 2021, McConnell stood on the Senate floor and said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president.” But privately, he had already decided against convicting him. “We don’t disagree on the substance; we just disagree on the tactics,” McConnell reportedly told Liz Cheney that month. “Let’s just ignore him.”

McConnell also feared the wrath of Trump—and his base. He worried that impeachment and removal were bad politics; that they would cost the Republican Party in the midterms, if not beyond. And yet Trump used his spot in the GOP firmament to meddle in congressional races, ultimately costing the party the Senate: His handpicked candidates tripped over their shoelaces in winnable Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania contests. Trump, meanwhile, continues to rail against McConnell, particularly on his bespoke social network, Truth Social.

“Is McConnell approving all of these trillions of dollars worth of Democrat-sponsored bills, without even the slightest bit of negotiation, because he hates Donald J. Trump, and he knows I am strongly opposed to them, or is he doing it because he believes in the fake and highly destructive green new deal, and is willing to take the country down with him?” Trump wrote in October, adding that McConnell has a “death wish,” before making a lazy, racist attack on McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who served as Trump’s transportation secretary before resigning in the aftermath of the January 6 riot.

This dynamic, moreover, isn’t going anywhere. Many of McConnell’s critics are the biggest GOP attention hogs: Trump, obviously, but also Cruz and Hawley. It seems unlikely, at this point, that either will challenge Trump for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024, but both are positioning themselves as candidates eager to carry the former president’s torch whenever he relinquishes it. Attacking McConnell—and causing him problems—is good politics for as long as ingratiating oneself with Trump and his base is good politics. At the same time, even with Trump-backed candidates like Mehmet Oz and Blake Masters losing, the Senate is becoming more and more unruly and radical.

McConnell deserves all of this. He spent the entirety of Trump’s presidency doing his bidding and excusing his abhorrent actions and statements. Afraid of his voters and of losing his grip on power, McConnell backed Trump up and got hundreds of judges approved to lifetime appointments, many of whom are underqualified and still do Trump’s bidding whenever called upon. He had a brief opportunity to end Trump’s political career in the wake of January 6 and chose not to take it. He has earned all the chaos that has followed.