Faced with the likelihood that his party will lose its Senate majority and fed up with a group of Republican senators pushing an effort to invalidate the Electoral College vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a stunning and searing rebuke of the President and many within the GOP.
“The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” McConnell said from the floor of the Senate Wednesday afternoon. “If we overrule them all, it would damage our republic forever. … If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again.”
McConnell went on. “We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes… with separate facts, and separate realities … with nothing in common except hostility toward each another and mistrust for the few national institutions that we still share.”
And, finally, this: “It would be unfair and wrong to disenfranchise American voters and overrule the courts and the states on this thin basis. And I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing.”
While McConnell, an institutionalist through and through, was widely expected to oppose efforts pushed by the President and his enablers in the House and Senate, few if anyone thought he would do so in such striking and strident terms. After all, McConnell spent much of the past four years gritting his teeth and staying silent in the midst of Trump’s repeated violations of political norms (and conservative principles) in exchange for a conservative overhaul of the federal judiciary.
To be clear, McConnell didn’t just condemn his own President and his own party. He sought, misleadingly, to suggest that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame.
“Every time in the last 30 years that Democrats have lost a presidential race, they’ve tried a challenge like this one – after 2000, 2004, and 2016,” said McConnell, adding: “We will either guarantee Democrats’ delegitimizing efforts after 2016 become a permanent new routine for both sides … or declare that our nation deserves better.”
That’s deeply misleading. In 2005, there was an objection by Democrats that was quickly voted down. There was no such challenge after the 2000 or 2016 election. (According to the House historian’s website, the only other recorded objection in Congress to the Electoral College vote was in 1969.)
McConnell’s both-siderism aside, his speech was still a remarkable break with the President. It functioned as a full-scale rejection of the distorted and malignant rhetoric being pushed by the President from the man who will, once Trump leaves Washington, be the most prominent national face of the GOP.
McConnell’s decision to give this speech in this moment amounts to an attempt to begin to break cleanly with Trump and the version of so-called “conservatism” he has embraced. To borrow a movie image, McConnell’s speech can be rightly understood as Gandalf in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” banging down his wand and shouting “You shall not pass!” at the Trump horde.
Here’s the problem: It’s too late.
Because less than an hour after McConnell gave this speech, Trump supporters, who had gathered for a “Stop the Steal” rally, stormed the US Capitol – breaching not only the Capitol complex but also making their way onto the same floor of the Senate where McConnell had spoken.
And where did they get the idea? At least in part from Trump himself – during an appearance earlier on Wednesday.
“We’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” he told the crowd. “And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
McConnell’s speech was powerful. And meaningful. But ultimately, history may judge it as a moment that was simply too little, too late.
CNN’s Allison Gordon contributed to this report.