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Mitch McConnell Surrenders to Trump

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Dour, somber Mitch McConnell was gleeful, if such a thing can be imagined. Surveying the aftermath of the January 6 riot, the longtime Kentucky senator concluded that Donald Trump was finished. “I feel exhilarated by the fact that this fellow finally, totally discredited himself,” he told a reporter. “He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.”

That was a little more than three years ago. Today, McConnell surrendered to Trump. The Republican leader announced that he will step down from his leadership post in November, meaning that if Trump wins the presidential election, as he currently seems favored to do, he’ll have a Senate Republican leader in place more ready to work with him.

McConnell’s exit marks Trump’s conquest of the Senate, the one element of the GOP that still offered even a little resistance to the former president. Trump has all but clinched the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. The Republican National Committee may soon be controlled by one of his top campaign aides and his daughter-in-law. The speaker of the House rose to prominence trying to find legal means to overturn Trump’s 2020 defeat. Governors who once criticized him, such as Larry Hogan and Chris Sununu, have left or will soon leave office.

In recent weeks, McConnell has demonstrated his distance from Trump and shown that his grasp on the Senate, though slipping, remains formidable. Even as the more MAGA-dominated parts of the party rejected any suggestion of a border bill, McConnell threw his weight behind a compromise. Trump took that round, forcing McConnell to pull support for the bill. But McConnell then worked to get a package of aid for Israel and Ukraine through the Senate, despite Trump’s opposition. The House, however, seems likely to smother that. Soon McConnell won’t be around either.

McConnell and Trump always had an uneasy relationship. McConnell was an exemplar of the old Republican Party—committed to business-friendly and socially conservative policies. He never particularly liked Trump, but they found ways to work together. Trump even appointed McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, as secretary of transportation. The greatest achievements of McConnell’s leadership and Trump’s presidency were the same: the installation of a six-judge conservative majority on the Supreme Court and an influx of conservative judges on lower federal courts.

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This may be what McConnell was referring to when he said, in today’s announcement, “I always imagined a moment when I had total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work. A moment when I am certain I have helped preserve the ideals I so strongly believe. It arrived today.”

McConnell also clashed with Trump, especially on foreign policy, while Trump blamed McConnell for legislative defeats. But the Kentuckian persistently sought some way to reconcile the old and new Republican Parties and to avoid an all-out confrontation, pushing his own priorities and trying to restrain Trump somewhat.

Twice, McConnell had the chance to end Trump’s career. During Trump’s first impeachment, he did not support conviction, though getting enough Republicans to vote to convict Trump might have been tough. A clearer opportunity came after January 6. McConnell unsparingly criticized Trump, but he declined to push for convicting and barring him from office. Instead, he flinched, grabbing on to a theory that the Senate couldn’t convict Trump because he had already left office. (Never mind that McConnell himself had ensured that the impeachment came after Trump left office.)

It was another example of McConnell trying to avoid a total breach. He thought he could wait out Trump’s exit from politics—in fact, by February 2021, he seemed to think that he already had. Although a biographer once labeled McConnell “The Cynic,” this calculation turned out to be not nearly cynical enough about Trump or Republican voters.

Trump immediately began regrouping—starting with whipping more pliable leaders, such as then–House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, into line. (His relationship with McConnell got worse. The men did not speak, and Trump attacked him, as well as Chao, in racist terms.) Trump began plotting his return to the White House, and although he seemed beatable for a time, he was not. Criminal indictments turned out to bind Republican voters to him more closely, while his rivals made the same mistake that McConnell had, believing they could somehow avoid a full breach with him. McConnell thought he was playing the long game, but Trump was playing a longer game.

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McConnell, the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, is 82 and visibly ailing; he suffered a pair of strange seizure-like incidents last year that raised concerns about his health. He also cited the recent death of his sister-in-law in his remarks. But McConnell’s health is not the reason he’s stepping down. (His current Senate term runs through 2026, and he has not said he will retire.)

“Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them,” he said. McConnell is already losing control of his caucus, and retaining his grip will only get harder after the elections, when the Senate is likely to gain more Trump-aligned members. McConnell had no interest in leading a Trumpist party in the Senate.

Among the likely contenders to replace McConnell are the “three Johns”—Senators Cornyn of Texas, Barrasso of Wyoming, and Thune of South Dakota. All three are longtime McConnell allies, but all three have already endorsed Trump, Thune just this week. None of them would have the stature or appetite to push back on Trump even to the limited degree McConnell would.

The New York Times reported this week on back-channel efforts to get McConnell to endorse Trump for president. It remains to be seen whether that will succeed, but it probably doesn’t matter. McConnell’s capitulation today demonstrated Trump’s control over the Republican Party more clearly than any endorsement could.

Source: The Atlantic

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