Mitch McConnell kept Trump alive. Now Trump is turning on him.

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Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.
Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

The funny thing about Donald Trump's latest efforts to take down Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is that Trump's presidency would have been nearly bereft of accomplishment without the senator's efforts. Trump's biggest "successes" — the $1.9 trillion tax cut, the confirmations of three conservative justices to the Supreme Court — depended wholly on McConnell's ability to wield legislative power. Otherwise, Trump's governing legacy would consist largely of his pandemic failures, a deleted Twitter account, and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump craves power and its trappings; McConnell actually knows how to use it.

But McConnell is no Trump loyalist. For Trump, loyalty is really the only thing that matters. That's why he's prodding his allies to challenge McConnell's longtime leadership of the Senate GOP, as The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend.

The minority leader isn't really a sympathetic figure here, at least not in the way that Republicans such as Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), or Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) have appeared after they cast their votes for Trump's impeachment in the hot, angry days following Jan. 6. Whatever you think of their politics, each of them put principle over power to vote against Trump, and each paid a price. Cheney lost her place on the GOP's House leadership team in the House, Gonzalez last week announced that he is giving up his re-election campaign, and Kinzinger — who also seems unlikely to last beyond his current term — has been treated harshly by his own family for forsaking Trump.

But McConnell tried to have both power and principle. He failed entirely to hold on to the latter, and in so doing he might have helped keep Trump's political prospects alive. In the early days after Jan. 6, you'll recall, McConnell let it be known he might be amenable to efforts to impeach Trump over the insurrection. He was angry with Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. But he did nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. First, he slow-walked the impeachment process so that the Senate trial couldn't be held until after Trump left office. Then he cited Trump's departure as his reason for voting against convicting the former president on inciting the insurrection. He did, however, give a speech lambasting Trump for his role in the disaster.

"Former President Trump's actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty," McConnell told the Senate. "Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day."

Just not responsible enough to be held accountable, apparently.

Counterfactuals are always a tricky thing. We can never really know how things would have turned out if our leaders had made different choices along the way. But you have to wonder how Trump's continued political relevance might have been affected if McConnell had used his power and influence to help secure an impeachment conviction. Perhaps in so doing, McConnell could have guaranteed that Trump couldn't run for president again in 2024 — and thus removed a dark cloud that now overhangs both the potential GOP primary field and the American electorate. Instead, by preventing a conviction, McConnell probably helped keep Trump's political career alive.

Perhaps McConnell believed Trump had been so thoroughly discredited by the insurrection that there was no need to put his fingerprints all over the former president's downfall. (McConnell has long excelled at such tactics.) That would be a good way to avoid getting in trouble with GOP voters who remain fiercely attached to Trump. If that's the case, though, the senator failed. He didn't recognize that he shares a political superpower with Trump: Both men are utterly shameless.

For Trump, that has manifested in an unusual ability to disregard the norms of decency, truth, and the law in order to seize the national spotlight and stay there. McConnell, whose allies boast of his imperviousness to shame, has advanced Republican priorities by flip-flopping on his previously expressed principles about everything from the timing of court nominations to the national debt ceiling. For all the reported enmity between the two men, their shared shamelessness has made it possible for each to thrive in the rough world of politics. McConnell should have known that Trump wouldn't simply go away on his own, but would need to be pushed out.

Luckily for McConnell, other GOP senators don't seem much interested in getting rid of him. "I just don't realistically see that happening," said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). This is proof that the party can shrug off Trump if and when it so chooses. And it is further evidence that Trump, despite his nominal status as Republican leader, is less interested in building the party than in ensuring it uniformly reflects his glory. He probably can't dislodge McConnell from leadership — at least for now — but he can continue to be a thorn in the senator's side. You can't say McConnell didn't earn it.

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