McConnell silent about sour Trump relationship
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has kept strictly silent with his Senate GOP colleagues, including members of his inner circle, about his sour relationship with former President Trump, according to senators interviewed by The Hill.
McConnell, who takes pride in his discipline and ability to stay on message, hasn’t said anything in meetings large and small with GOP colleagues in response to a new book claiming that he felt “exhilarated” about the prospect that Trump destroyed his political career by inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the senators say.
He also hasn’t said anything to colleagues about his reaction to the report that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) planned to ask Trump to resign from office before changing his mind and publicly making amends with the former president.
McCarthy scrambled to contain political fallout from the book by speaking to Trump by phone to reassure the former president that he remained loyal and then making a round of calls to House Republican colleagues to assure them that his relationship with Trump was still good.
McConnell, by contrast, hasn’t felt the need to attempt any damage control, in part because his relationship with Trump is already as bad as it can get and he doesn’t see it as any obstacle to being reelected as Senate Republican leader after the 2022 midterm elections, GOP senators say.
“McConnell is a lot smarter than McCarthy, so he hasn’t said anything,” one Republican senator said of McConnell’s silence about Trump. “He’s just gone about his business.”
The lawmaker said “there was no talk of McCarthy, there was no talk of Trump” during McConnell’s meetings with GOP colleagues this week, an account that was confirmed by two other Republican senators.
Instead, McConnell kept his focus “on the issues at hand,” including a series of motions to instruct a Senate-House conference negotiation on the United States Innovation and Competition Act and the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the senator said.
A second Republican senator who requested anonymity to talk about McConnell’s strategy in refusing to comment on his relationship with Trump said it won’t pose any problem to McConnell’s reelection as GOP leader after the November elections.
“He doesn’t need to” say anything, the senator said, because he doesn’t need Trump’s support to keep his leadership post.
McCarthy is much more dependent on Trump’s favor because the House Republican Conference is more pro-Trump compared to the Senate Republican Conference.
He needs to win a majority vote of the entire House to become Speaker if Republicans win control of the lower chamber. As a result, depending on the size of a new House Republican majority, a relatively small faction of pro-Trump House members could prevent him from winning the Speaker’s gavel if they view him as insufficiently loyal to the former president.
“McConnell has a different relationship with Trump than McCarthy. It doesn’t impact his position as leader or his relationship with his colleagues,” the senator said.
Other Senate Republicans, however, have privately expressed hope that McConnell might find some way to mend his relationship with Trump before the 2024 presidential election, in which Trump is expected to run for the White House again.
Republican lawmakers think Trump has a good chance of winning the GOP nomination and beating President Biden, if the 79-year-old incumbent decides to run again.
McConnell has only said that he will “absolutely” support Trump if he is the party’s nominee in 2024.
The Kentucky senator on Tuesday brushed off a question at his leadership press conference about whether he had any concerns about McCarthy’s denial that he had discussed asking for Trump’s resignation before later deciding to embrace the former president.
“I addressed that issue at length on two occasions on Jan. 6 and again Feb. 13,” he said, referring to his comments on Jan. 6, 2021, opposing an effort by Trump allies to hold up the certification of Biden’s victory and at the end of the Senate impeachment trial, when he called Trump’s actions preceding the riot at the Capitol “a disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
Al Cross, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics, said House Republicans are more susceptible to Trump’s popularity with the party’s base because they all face reelection every two years while senators only face voters every six years.
He said House members who face potential primaries every two years “are scared to death of Trump.”
Cross speculated that Trump’s ability to retain strong support from the Republican base despite his actions inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol “must have both surprised and disappointed” McConnell.
He said Trump’s continued popularity among GOP voters likely informed McConnell’s decision to keep quiet about the president after criticizing him so openly shortly after the riot that resulted in the death of a Capitol police officer.
“That was the end of him and Trump. It was much better for him to have a clean break and just stop messing with the guy. You start engaging with Trump, it becomes a mud bath between you and him,” he added. “He has taken a strategy of stepping out of the mud hole and trying to stay there.”
Trump has criticized McConnell repeatedly since their falling out over Jan. 6, calling him “Old Crow” and disparaging his leadership ability. Yet, McConnell has steadfastly refused to engage or respond. He’s only joked that Old Crow is the name of his favorite bourbon.
Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide, said McConnell is focused on maintaining his relationships with GOP senators.
“I think McConnell has been pretty open about his feelings for the most part. As we know, the Senate is a club, and I don’t think there’s any chance that McConnell gets challenged [to serve another term as leader],” he said. “McCarthy is going to have a tougher go of it because of the nature of the House and the nature of the [House GOP] caucus.”
“The Senate is more insulated from the feelings of the moment,” he added.
He said the hopes that some GOP senators still harbor of Trump and McConnell mending their relationship at some point in the future are unrealistic.
“There’s no chance that they’re going to have a decent relationship,” he said. “It’s clear from both sides that McConnell and Trump do not like each other. I don’t think they can even make believe that there’s a détente between the two where they can get along.”
Updated at 8 a.m.
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