Why McConnell Dumped Trump - 2021-01-23
On the afternoon of January 6th, less than an hour before a violent mob supporting President Donald Trump broke into the Capitol, causing mayhem that led to the deaths of five Americans, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, gave the most powerful speech of his life. In a cold disavowal of Trump's false claims about rampant election fraud, McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, stood behind the Senate dais and stated the obvious: despite two months of increasingly malign lies from Trump, and from many of his supporters in Congress, Joe Biden had won the Presidency. McConnell, in his dead-eyed, laconic manner, listed the damning facts, citing numerous federal judges and state officials who had rejected Trump's baseless assertions that the election had been "rigged" against him. "The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken," McConnell said. "If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever." Then, in a final jab, he pointed out that—contrary to Trump's ludicrous claim that he'd won a second term by a landslide—the election "actually was not unusually close." Trump had lost by seven million votes in the popular ballot, and 306–232 in the Electoral College.
In the days after the Capitol attack, as horrifying footage emerged of marauders ransacking the building and chanting, "Hang Mike Pence!" and "Treason!," McConnell, through a series of anonymously sourced reports in major news outlets, distanced himself even further from the President. As a prominent Republican strategist noted, "Nothing's ever happenstance with McConnell"—and so each report was taken as a Delphic signal. On January 12th, the Times published a headline declaring that McConnell was "said to be pleased" about the Democrats' intention to impeach the President a second time. Unnamed associates revealed to reporters on Capitol Hill that McConnell was no longer speaking to Trump, and might vote to convict him if the impeachment process moved to a Senate trial. On January 13th, ten Republican members of the House of Representatives joined the Democrats in impeaching Trump, for "incitement of insurrection." Soon afterward, McConnell made clear to his Republican colleagues that he regarded impeachment as a matter of individual conscience, not one of party loyalty. And on January 19th, the day before Biden was sworn in as President, McConnell shocked political circles by denouncing Trump even more directly. Speaking from the Senate floor, he said, with extraordinary bluntness, "The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the President and other powerful people."
McConnell's denunciation of Trump won grudging praise from many corners, including people who rarely support him. Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has been fiercely critical of McConnell, told me, "I was surprised at Mitch's comments. They were more forthright than I expected. Good for him!" But nobody who has watched McConnell closely over the years views his split with Trump as a genuine moral reckoning. "There is no way that McConnell has had an epiphany and will now change his fundamental approach," Ornstein said. "He will always act ruthlessly when it serves his own interest." Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of McConnell's rupture with Trump may be not that it happened but, rather, that it took so long—and that the leader of the Party in Congress countenanced so much damage along the way.