The Long Game, Mitch McConnell’s 2018 autobiography, opens with a flattering prologue from then-President Donald Trump, who says the then-Senate Majority Leader was his “ace in the hole” and that he “couldn’t have asked for a finer partner” in Washington.
Two and a half years, two impeachments, and a Capitol insurgency later, Trump now claims that he never penned any of McConnell’s compliments, and that the adoring note was written by McConnell himself.
“Why don’t you write it for me, and I’ll put it in, Mitch?” Trump told the Post he told McConnell. “Because that’s the way life works.”
McConnell did not dispute that he wrote his own accolades. “I really don’t have anything to add related to him,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul stated.
On Jan. 6, when supporters of Trump stormed the Capitol, McConnell was taken away to a secret location and cloistered with a few of other key members.
The Kentucky senator had spent the previous four years as one of Trump’s key enablers, bolstering his victory by leaving a Supreme Court seat available, advancing his agenda with party-line votes, and standing by for weeks while Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen. But their political convenience marriage had been dissolved three weeks before, when Trump slammed McConnell for accepting Joe Biden’s triumph.
According to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), who was also in the secure area and was gathered with Democratic leaders as they saw footage of police confronting Trump supporters in the Capitol, McConnell responded with fury and horror.
“I thought to myself, ‘This could be a transformative moment. He appears to have taken this very seriously,” Durbin said of the Republican leader, who he spent hours with that day.
But when it came to holding Trump accountable, McConnell backed down. While seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump after the House impeached him for encouraging an insurgency, McConnell voted for acquittal, assuring Trump would suffer no legal consequence for instigating an insurgency.
Ten months later, Trump has regained control of the Republican Party, is set to run again in 2024, and is openly dismissive of the Senate leader who helped rescue him. Trump called McConnell a “stupid person” and recommended that his preferred Senate candidates for 2022 remove McConnell from his leadership position once they get in Washington.
McConnell is not a “true leader” because he “didn’t fight for the presidency,” Trump remarked in an interview.
For all of his 36-year Senate career, McConnell has established a reputation as a great political and legislative manipulator, a polished insider who understands how to win and use power.
When he managed Senate campaign strategy in the late 1990s, he was credited with masterminding Republican wins, rising to party leader and manipulating chamber rules to stymie most of President Barack Obama’s agenda and to reject judicial appointments, including a vital Supreme Court position.
He utilized his fundraising abilities to endorse Senate candidates with the highest odds of winning while undermining fringe characters who could be less appealing.
Under Trump, McConnell appointed hundreds of conservative justices to the federal court, which many regarded as proof of McConnell’s capacity to wield power over an inexperienced administration.
Yet, in the months following the Jan. 6 assault, a new portrayal of McConnell has emerged.
McConnell, who was easily re-elected to a seventh term last year and is now in his 16th year as the Senate’s top Republican, is increasingly playing the role of a conflicted and compromised promoter of Trump’s interests — rather than a leader with his own vision.
McConnell’s vote on impeachment, which enraged some of his most ardent supporters, demonstrated his calculation that he couldn’t resist Trump even at the former president’s most vulnerable moment, a sign of the MAGA grip on the party electorate and many in McConnell’s own caucus.
He rejected a bipartisan probe launched on January 6, vetoed three Democratic proposals aimed at countering draconian GOP voting rules fueled by Trump’s phony fraud allegations, and promoted a Trump-backed 2022 Senate candidate who repeated Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen.
To top it all off, McConnell has promised to support for Trump if he is nominated in 2024. In an interview with The Washington Post, McConnell was asked whether he would support Trump as the Republican candidate “no matter what he’s done,” and he answered he would “obviously” do so.
How could he reconcile that vow with his claim that Trump instigated an insurgency? McConnell said it was “pretty simple” since he would follow the interests of his party.
“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.”
McConnell’s actions after Jan. 6 followed a lengthy pattern in his political career, which started as a legislative intern in 1963, according to an analysis of his papers. He has shifted sharply to the right on topics ranging from campaign financing to voting rights, as the Republican Party has shifted around him. According to many who knew him early in his career, his driving philosophy has been power – obtaining and maintaining it — rather than intellectual commitment to policy.
In the interview, McConnell said that he is proud of the positions he has taken, including several that go against typical Republican thought, such as opposing a ban on burning American flags and backing the Democrats’ infrastructure program. “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.”