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Mitch McConnell Will Be Remembered for Throwing Trump a Political Life Raft

McConnell formally endorses Trump and after 40 years in power, departs a Senate GOP in thrall to the former president.

Then-President Donald Trump talks to the press as then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks on after the Republican luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 9, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

After years of on-again-off-again feuding with former President Donald Trump, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed Trump on Wednesday as the Republican nominee following the former president’s easy victories in the Super Tuesday caucuses and primaries. It is the latest example of McConnell’s extraordinary, finely tuned ability to put political expediency over principle.

The negotiations for McConnell’s endorsement had purportedly been going on behind the scenes between the McConnell and Trump camps for weeks. News of these happenings broke last week — but were quickly overshadowed by the senator’s announcement that he would step down as leader of the senate GOP come November.

Now, McConnell is taking his final bow with the craven shame of an endorsement of a man he once determined was “morally responsible” for an insurrectionary effort against the U.S. government hanging over his already opportunistic reputation.

Nearly 40 years after he was first elected to the United States Senate and 17 years after he first became leader of the GOP caucus, McConnell’s decision to step down set the stage for a scramble for power, with several of his underlings immediately letting it be known they were interested in his job.

The Kentuckian is rightly known for being entirely ruthless both in his pursuit of and his use of power. Witness his refusal to hold Senate confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, when then-President Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a year before the 2016 election, arguing that voters should decide the matter so close to an election; and, by contrast, his determination to ram through Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination just days before the 2020 election, when more than half of the electorate had already voted.

He publicly stated, in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, insurrection that there was no doubt that Trump was morally responsible for what had transpired — but he then chose to appease his base by holding enough GOP senators in line that Trump wasn’t convicted by the Senate following the House’s vote to impeach him. Let bygones be bygones, McConnell basically argued, suggesting that the trial was political theater, and that there was no point in convicting an ex-president who had already left the national stage.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that McConnell’s stance provided Trump the life raft he so desperately needed after the catastrophic last weeks of his presidency to start rebuilding his political brand.

As Trump methodically pushed his “stolen election” narrative and convinced a growing part of the GOP base and of the GOP’s House and Senate caucus to buy into this toxic assault on the democratic infrastructure of the country, McConnell stood largely silent, refusing to use his public platform to push back against Trump’s increasingly extremist rhetoric or to try to steer the GOP in Congress in a more moderate direction. Every so often, he made milquetoast comments suggesting there was little evidence of systemic election fraud in the country, but he never made the leap from that to a comprehensive rebuttal of Trump’s specific claims. After all, taking on Trump on this most fundamental of questions would have involved McConnell expending political capital that he was desperate to hoard.

So, too, he has refused to stand up to the Trumpified GOP base by making even the mildest of statements that it might be less than appropriate to nominate as a presidential candidate a man on trial for 91 felony charges — a man who has been found liable for the sexual abuse of author E. Jean Carroll and fined $83 million for defaming her, and who was ordered to pay nearly half a billion dollars as a result of being found guilty of business fraud.

By contrast, when then-President Bill Clinton was impeached after the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, McConnell voted to convict him, saying, “Do we want to retain President Clinton in office, or do we want to retain our honor, our principle, and our moral authority? For me, and for many members in my impeachment-fatigued party, I choose honor.” McConnell went on to say that Clinton had “pledged to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and he violated that pledge.”

In his harrowing silence over Trump and his sexual violence and other ethical breaches, there isn’t even the ghost of the politician who so excoriated Clinton. What makes McConnell’s silence all the more extraordinary is that Trump has, during his post-presidency years, repeatedly made racial slurs against McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who served as Trump’s transportation secretary. He has also repeatedly attacked McConnell in the most personal of terms, going so far as to state on Truth Social, in response to actions of McConnell’s that Trump opposed, that the GOP Senate leader has a “DEATH WISH.” If it wasn’t an explicit threat against McConnell, it also most certainly wasn’t a statement of goodwill.

It’s hard to see how anyone with a shred of self-dignity could absorb such venomous insults against himself and his wife and then conclude that political expediency demanded he negotiate an endorsement of the man who had flung such filth his way. Yet if the stories about the behind-the-scenes negotiations have any truth to them, that’s precisely what McConnell, as he approaches the end of his long Senate career, has concluded. So long as a second Trump term promises to deliver up lower taxes and conservative judges, McConnell is apparently willing to climb aboard the MAGA train. Indeed, in a statement following his endorsement of Trump, McConnell said, “During his Presidency, we worked together to accomplish great things for the American people including tax reform that supercharged our economy and a generational change of our federal judiciary — most importantly, the Supreme Court.”

After the story broke about McConnell’s negotiations with the Trump team, Senate colleagues told journalists that he was willing to endorse Trump because he believed it would increase the likelihood of the GOP reclaiming a majority in the Senate. It seems that Trump recognizes the strategy, as he posted on Truth Social in response to McConnell’s endorsement, “Thank you, Mitch. I look forward to working with you and a Republican Senate MAJORITY to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” It’s the calculus that other top GOP Senate leaders have also made. McConnell’s deputy, John Thune, to take just one such figure, once called Trump’s actions on January 6 “inexcusable.” Now he’s backing Trump’s efforts to regain the presidency.

Eight years ago, McConnell sought to allay concerns about Trump’s mercurial style and his abrasive politics by saying it was far more likely that GOP insiders would change Trump than that he would fundamentally change the GOP. That ought to qualify as one of the least successful prophecies in U.S. political history. Now, as McConnell prepares his slow goodbye from the public eye, it’s clear just how very wrong that prognosis was.

Whoever succeeds McConnell will be entirely in thrall to Trump. If Trump does end up being elected again, with a late assist from McConnell, he will come into power entirely unconstrained by a pliant GOP in both the House and the Senate. That, at the end of the day, is the spectacularly sordid legacy that McConnell will be leaving after 40 years at the heart of power.

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