Sen. Mitch McConnell was handily reelected in November, and has cemented his legacy as the architect of a recast judiciary that saw 230 new conservative federal judges and three Supreme Court justices join the bench in just four years. He has also just lost his job as majority leader, and witnessed one of the darkest hours for our nation, and certainly the darkest hour for the GOP, in his lifetime. But for a 78-year-old man, closing in on four decades in the U.S. Congress and perhaps in his final term in office, the most difficult and challenging days and weeks of his career are still before him.
All eyes are on McConnell, from corporate titans to Main Street voters, as they await whether he will work across the aisle on critical issues like pandemic relief, or thwart President Biden’s agenda. But it is what McConnell will do within his own party that will determine not only his place in history but the future of the GOP and the integrity and independence of the Congress.
CNN reported Friday that “dozens of influential Republicans, including some former Trump administration officials,” are lobbying McConnell to support an impeachment conviction of the former president and a vote to bar him from future office as the best, and only, way for the party to move on. A vote by McConnell to convict Trump would likely provide necessary cover for other like-minded Republican senators to do the same.
McConnell’s break with Trump came on Jan. 6. Hours after Republicans lost the Senate -- when Trump doomed the runoff races for incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue but before the storming of the Capitol -- McConnell finally spoke out against the president’s election fraud big lie and his colleagues' complicity in it. “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral,” he said on the Senate floor that morning.
Immediately after the attack on the Capitol, McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, resigned as transportation secretary. And McConnell World, the most loyal of teams that doesn't ever leak, then orchestrated a leak blessed from the top to let the media know the leader “hates” Trump, wouldn’t speak to him ever again, was glad House Democrats were impeaching him, and would possibly vote to convict in a Senate trial.
McConnell, and Republicans urging him to distance the party from Trump, know the former president cost the party its Senate majority by depressing votes in the Georgia runoffs, and that his incitement of sedition, willingness to endanger Vice President Pence, refusal to stop the riots while they were ongoing, and praise of the rioters, amounted to a dangerous stain on the country by a leader betraying the Constitution.
By trying to move on from Trump, it doesn’t appear McConnell hopes to return the party to its former principles -- free market capitalism, free trade, the rule of law, limited government, debt reduction -- all of which were tossed or trashed by Trump. This notion is a lost cause, and not one GOP leader even mentioned federalism or the sovereignty of states in the aftermath of a violent mob attempting to steal an election and overthrow the government. McConnell and others aligned with him are merely hoping to distance the party from the illiberalism of Trumpism in hopes of winning back some of the voters Republicans lost in the Trump years. To earn credibility with those voters they must disavow what Trump did.
Over at Fox News, Sean Hannity is telling his audience Republicans need a new leader in the Senate because McConnell is “king of the establishment Republicans.” He is indeed. And the establishment is interested in moving away from brain-washing lies, chief among them Trump’s claim of election fraud. They instead would like to be a party that can collect the corporate dollars now being banned and denied them.
Republicans like McConnell are right, but they dwell in a lonely minority. Trump is, quite literally, working to break the party by threatening to begin a new MAGA or “Patriot” party -- a gift to Democrats. The GOP has splintered since the deadly insurrection. Blanket rejections of violence are as far as Republicans have gone as a group, and there are still only five or six in either chamber who have told voters they were lied to.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said the night of Jan. 6 that he was done with Trump, ran back to his perch as a top Trump adviser within days. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said Trump bore some responsibility for the deadly attack on Congress, is now walking back his statements, saying Trump didn’t provoke violence and everyone in the country is responsible for what happened.
An impeachment trial will begin in the Senate in two weeks. Now out of office, Trump would not be removed by a conviction, but could be banned from future office with an accompanying vote. Conviction, requiring 67 votes -- 17 Republicans joining Democrats -- is nearly impossible. Republicans from critical corners of the conference have made that clear. It’s not just those eying a run for president in 2024, or ardent Trumpkins like Sen. Ron Johnson, who are trying to fend off a Trump-fueled primary challenge in 2022. Sen. John Cornyn, a close leadership ally of McConnell’s who was just reelected, is the kind of Republican hoping to move on from Trump and who would be needed for conviction. He says a trial is “vindictive.” Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of leadership, said a trial is “stupid.” Graham was the most blunt, saying on Fox News last week that anyone wanting to erase Trump is “going to get erased.”
In a statement released to the press Sunday, Trump aide Jason Miller made clear the threat to House members who voted for impeachment and to those Senate Republicans considering voting to convict. “The president has made clear his goal is to win back the House and Senate for Republicans in 2022," Miller said. "There’s nothing that's actively being planned regarding an effort outside of that, but it’s completely up to Republican senators if this is something that becomes more serious."
GOP House members, and their leaders -- with the exception of Rep. Liz Cheney -- have absorbed the threat. There are primary challenges awaiting Cheney and the other nine Republicans who voted for impeachment, and Cheney also faces censure at home plus a move by more than 115 of her colleagues to remove her as chair of the House GOP Conference. Vocal Trumpkins like Rep. Matt Gaetz are denouncing Cheney as a danger to the party and insisting “President Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party and the America First movement.” Freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has embraced QAnon conspiracy theories, has warned the only organizing principle for Republicans is Trump. “The vast majority of Republican voters, volunteers, and donors are no longer loyal to the GOP, Republican Party, and candidates just because they have an R by their name. Their loyalty now lies with Donald J. Trump.”
McConnell is an institutionalist who doesn’t like government shutdowns, or threats to breach the debt ceiling. He repeatedly resisted pressure from Trump to eliminate the filibuster, which was, at that time, protecting the rights of the Democratic minority in the Senate. He vigorously defended democracy in his Jan. 6 speech. Last week he graciously congratulated Sen. Chuck Schumer as the chamber's new majority leader.
He is also a fierce partisan. For all of McConnell’s candor since the morning of Jan. 6, he remains complicit by his silence until that deadly day. He never spoke out because he wanted to keep the Georgia seats, and he wanted to remain majority leader. McConnell famously blocked Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination for 237 days, claiming the Senate couldn’t confirm a justice in the same year as an election but confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the high court eight days before an election -- in both cases because doing so helped his party. Right now, what McConnell thinks is best for the party is not what base voters think is best.
For McConnell, conviction should be easy. He swore an oath to defend the Constitution -- not a corrupt and dangerous president -- against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The permission that acquittal would provide to future demagogues and authoritarians is an invitation to future sedition and insurrection. An acquittal not only makes Trump more powerful, it is likely the end of impeachment as a constitutional tool as well, which threatens the check that Congress has on the executive. Will McConnell try to convince others to follow him?
The easy choice, of course, is acquiescence -- he can just back down. But that will likely doom the GOP to long-term minority status, as millions of Trump voters stop voting without their idol on the ticket and other voters write off the party for good. A partisan acquittal would also continue to erode the separation of powers and the constitutional order.
McConnell must soon choose a path and walk it. He knows he can’t go both ways.