McConnell in the Trump crucible: tough talk at first, then the leader didn't lead

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As Congress was concluding the business of certifying a new president, a task violently interrupted by a mob provoked by the outgoing president, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell “had had enough” of Donald Trump. “His majority was broken, the Capitol was desecrated and the country was humiliated in the eyes of the world.”

So write Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns of The New York Times in their new book about recent American politics, This Will Not Pass. Its title means that Trump and his movement will not pass from the scene anytime soon, contrary to what McConnell and us other wishful thinkers had in the week after the Capitol attack. And the book makes clearer how and why McConnell failed to make his assumption a reality.

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In the early-morning hours of Jan. 7. McConnell told his staff that Trump was a “despicable human being” and declared political war on him, Martin and Burns report: “We all knew he was unqualified but some thought he’d grow into the job, McConnell said. We quickly learned he wouldn’t grow into the office, so we tried to make the best of it, he went on. They had done good work for the country, McConnell assured his staff, and they had constrained the president in important ways. Now, McConnell said, we will have to fight him politically.”

McConnell, who had blamed Trump for Republicans’ loss of their Senate majority in Georgia runoff elections that week, ran into Jon Martin as he left the Capitol. “Strikingly, after all the trauma of the day, the 78-year-old senator seemed almost buoyant,” they write. “It soon became clear why. Trump, McConnell said, ‘was pretty thoroughly discredited by this. He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Couldn’t have happened at a better time.’”

But McConnell, uncharacteristically, was assuming facts not in evidence. When the reporter asked if rank-and-file Republicans would walk away from Trump, he noted that he had regained the majority by crushing extremist Republican candidates in the primaries of 2014, “and that’s what we’re going to do in the primary in ’22.”

“As McConnell left the Capitol in what he hoped was a new day, he might not have known how immediately Trump’s fate – and the fate of the Republican Party – would rest in his hands,” Martin and Burns write.

When one of them asked McConnell early on Jan. 7 his broader reaction to Jan. 6, he said, “I feel exhilarated by the fact that this fellow finally, totally discredited himself.” In fact, few Republican voters abandoned Trump, but it presumably took a week or so for McConnell and his cohorts to learn or be convinced of it.

Four days later, McConnell told two advisers that at least 17 Republican senators would vote with the 50 Democrats to convict Trump on impeachment for the riot, and suggested he would be one of them, the book reports. Commentator Scott Jennings “egged McConnell on,” but Chief of Staff Terry Carmack “asked if the leader was concerned about blowback from the thoroughly Trumpified Kentucky grass roots.

Sometimes, McConnell said, you have the luxury of sticking your finger in the wind and sometimes you don’t.”

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But McConnell did stick his finger in the Senate wind, and it wasn’t blowing his way. When the Times reported Jan. 12 that he believed Trump’s actions were impeachable, he declined to comment, and “The story sent a wave of anxiety through the Senate Republican conference,” the book says. “If McConnell was seriously considering a vote to convict Trump, he had not told any of them.” And by his own account, for the book months later, he didn’t try to persuade them: “I called it a vote of conscience from the beginning.”

But McConnell signaled where he was going by supporting Sen. Rand Paul’s resolution declaring the trial out of order because a former officeholder can’t be impeached or convicted. Only five Republicans voted no, and the book says McConnell told a friend, “I didn’t get to be leader by voting with five people in the conference.” Translation: “I might not get to stay leader by doing that.”

In declining to reconvene the Senate before Trump’s term ended, McConnell said there was “no chance that a fair or serious trial could conclude before” Jan. 20. He “was defensive, suggesting McConnell was already sensitive to the charge that he was doing Trump’s bidding by deferring a trial,” Martin and Burns write. “His assessment of the timetable, McConnell insisted, ‘is not a decision I am making. It is a fact.’”

It wasn’t a fact, but an opinion – well-grounded, but facile. The more apparent fact is that McConnell talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. Martin and Burns sum it up: “The leader, in the end, could not bring himself to lead.”

The book is loaded with a chapter’s worth of information about McConnell, and accurately depicts him, I think, as being driven mainly by one thing: regaining and keeping the Senate majority. It reports that he killed the idea of a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6, thinking it would “make it harder for Republicans to win back power in 2022,” and that when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin appealed to McConnell’s deputy, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Thune, who told him, “It’s Mitch’s decision.”

Al Cross, a former Courier Journal political writer, is professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He writes this column for the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. Reach him on Twitter @ruralj.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: New book 'This Will Not Pass' shows McConnell in the Trump crucible