Mitch McConnell can’t afford any tension with President Donald Trump. So he’s doing everything he can to keep his fragile majority in sync with Trump and his explosive election-year playbook.
Just three days after Trump berated McConnell on Twitter to “get tough” with Democrats and probe the 2016 Russia investigation that ensnared Trump’s campaign, the Senate majority leader took to the floor to echo the president’s misgivings in a way he declined to do last week. Trump’s campaign “was treated like a hostile foreign power by our own law enforcement,” McConnell said Tuesday, subject to “wild theories of Russian collusion.”
In the days to come and with McConnell’s public blessing, GOP committee chairmen plan to follow Trump’s lead and approve a series of subpoenas for documents and testimony that could hit some of Trump’s favorite targets, including Hunter Biden and dozens of Obama administration officials.
It’s all part of the last stage of the GOP’s evolution during Trump’s first term: an apparent end to public disagreements for the next six months until the party is past the election.
“I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the party whip. “One thing we have to do is to make sure that we are united on our agenda and make sure that there’s not separation between the White House and Republicans in Congress.”
Two hours after McConnell’s floor speech, Senate Republicans hosted Trump for their first party lunch in two months. The gathering was largely an opportunity for the president to present poll numbers, talk about his re-election campaign and tout his handling of the coronavirus crisis, which has ravaged the economy and infected more than a million people.
But Trump also urged Republicans to stick together as the election approaches — and act a little bit more like the opposition party he loathes.
“He very frequently reminds us that we’re not as tough as [Democrats] are, that they play more for keeps, that they stick together better,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Part of what makes us conservative is our independence, so that is our strength philosophically but sometimes it can be a weakness.”
There was no real agenda for the meeting, but the takeaway was clear to attendees. Trump told senators that “we need to be a team,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). When asked whether Trump encouraged senators to hammer home on the investigative front, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) replied: “He didn’t need to.”
The moment reflected a new level of political synergy between Trump and the Senate Republicans who once blanched at his Twitter insults, his erratic governing style and his unorthodox economic, immigration and diplomatic policies. These days the Senate GOP majority has become an extended arm of Trumpism, with occasional complaints by a scattered few senators but mostly toothless dissent.
Trump has been on a tear as he seeks retribution against his political enemies, whether it’s on the origins of the Russia investigation, the FBI’s case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, or Hunter Biden’s Ukraine work — and Republicans seem eager to play along. McConnell is defending his majority this fall in increasingly difficult conditions, and the GOP has decided the only way to win is to stick by Trump as closely as possible.
“You’re not crazy or a conspiracy theorist if you see a pattern of institutional unfairness toward this president,” McConnell said earlier on Tuesday. “You would have to be blind not to see one.”
McConnell also used his floor remarks to take a rare public jab at a federal judge for trying to slow the Justice Department’s move to drop the case against Flynn.
When asked whether he spoke with Trump after the president issued a direct appeal to him on Twitter over the weekend, McConnell sidestepped the question and said that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will have “all control on reviewing” the 2016-era investigations. “He has a pretty expansive plan to look into all of that,” McConnell added.
Trump did not directly answer a reporter over whether he was satisfied with how Republican senators were handling the matter. Instead, he reiterated his litany of grievances against the Obama administration.
Since Friday, Trump fired the State Department’s inspector general, went after McConnell on Twitter and revealed he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug with uncertain benefits for coronavirus according to officials. Meanwhile the U.S. death toll for the pandemic has shot past 90,000 and the unemployment rate is spiking.
Republicans have largely shrugged at Trump’s self-medication and defended his coronavirus response. They’ve also largely backed down as Trump continues his purge of government watchdogs in the aftermath of his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial, sending stern letters to Trump that have been ignored so far.
And when they had the president in front of him on Tuesday, senators decided it was not the venue to demand the explanation for the ousted inspectors general that they say they want.
“I didn’t ask him about it because I’m tracking down my own questions and trying to be able to work through the process,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “I’ve already started my own follow-up, privately.”
At the beginning of 2019, Republicans grimaced at Trump’s government shutdown and a bipartisan majority voted against his national emergency to build a border wall. GOP senators decried Trump’s tariffs for years and even conceded some tweets targeting progressive women in the House were racist.
But after everyone except Utah Sen. Mitt Romney banded around Trump during the impeachment trial, the party turned the page.
“The impeachment thing clearly brought people together,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
And Republicans are about to dig in even further behind Trump. On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security Committee will vote on a subpoena as part of the panel’s GOP-run investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
After Graham rebuffed Trump’s calls for the Judiciary Committee to haul in President Barack Obama and question him about the Flynn case, Graham now plans to approve a broad subpoena to compel documents and testimony from a slew of former Obama administration officials.
Graham told reporters he hoped to have his report out before the election and insisted that the subpoenas had nothing to do with Trump’s calls for him to call in Obama.
“We’ve been planning this for a long time,” Graham said.
Like Graham, McConnell had declined to endorse Trump’s push to haul Obama and Biden before the Senate, saying only in a Fox News interview last week that the public deserves to know more about how the 2016-era probes began. That response set off a flurry of criticism from Trump's allies in the conservative media, which led to Trump’s direct appeal to McConnell on Saturday to “get tough and move quickly.”
The new subpoena action also comes a week after two key Republicans senators released a list of Obama administration officials who might have been involved in efforts that “unmasked” Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but whose criminal case was dropped earlier this month. Biden’s name was on the list, which was compiled by Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.
These efforts by Republican senators are likely to give Trump a boost with his political base. The president’s reelection campaign unleashed a torrent of criticism against Biden after the “unmasking” list was released.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) has said he wants his party to multi-task and also make headway on climate change policy and health care. But for rank-and-file GOP senators, the election-year agenda is now mostly out of their control and focused increasingly on Trump’s targets.
“Personally, I didn't run for Senate to be involved in that,” said Braun, who won his seat in 2018. “I can see you're largely along for the ride on most of the stuff you'd like to see done.”
He then made clear that he views Trump’s agenda as his own, too: “For the American public there’s some grave issues that occurred. And we ought to get to the bottom of it.”