Mitch McConnell doesn’t say anything by accident. The Senate minority leader’s every move is in the service of his long game dedicated to securing power.
So the Kentucky senator’s denunciation of the Republican National Committee’s view of the US Capitol insurrection as “legitimate political discourse” Tuesday should be read as more than an unusually frank rebuke of ex-President Donald Trump.
McConnell’s comments were a blaring warning to his party, less than nine months before the midterm elections, that letting Trump’s election fraud fantasies and January 6 misinformation dominate the campaign could cost it dearly.
“We all were here. We saw what happened,” McConnell said of the attack on the Capitol. “It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next.”
McConnell, who is hoping to win the Senate majority to throttle Joe Biden’s presidency, spoke out on a day that laid bare the split that will haunt his party all the way to November.
If McConnell is playing a “long game,” which is what he titled his memoir, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is playing a short one – since he likely depends on Trump’s blessing to become speaker if the GOP wins the House majority in November.
The California Republican excused the RNC language, contained in a resolution that censured GOP Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming for joining the House select committee probing the January 6 insurrection.
“Anybody who broke in and caused damage, that was not called for. Those people, we’ve said from the very beginning, should be in jail,” McCarthy told CNN’s Manu Raju while claiming that the resolution was referring to subpoenas from the committee to RNC officials who were in Florida during the Capitol attack.
But the censure resolution made no such distinction. And the committee is empowered by the Democratic-led House to investigate events up to and including January 6, 2021.
Trump could distract GOP from Biden attacks
Yet again, the GOP is being dragged into internal recriminations and down an extreme road that could lead to violence and fresh assaults on democracy by the demagoguery, loyalty demands and obsessions of the ex-President.
The RNC’s whitewashing of the true nature of the insurrection is typical of the cult-like subservience many in the party still show to Trump. It made clear that the price of entry to the 2022 campaign for Republicans is now not just acceptance of Trump’s stolen election delusions but a willingness to deny the truth of the worst attack on democracy in modern American history.
But such radicalism threatens to turn the midterm campaign into yet another public therapy session for the ex-President, who still cannot accept his 2020 election defeat. It will not be lost on McConnell that Trump’s post-election tantrum helped cost the party two US Senate seats in Georgia runoff elections that would have made him majority leader.
This time, Trump’s fury threatens to drown out the searing attacks planned on Biden’s presidency by Republican strategists and remind critical suburban voters why they soured on the GOP during Trump’s presidency.
The clarity of McConnell’s language, which is rare in a party afraid to contradict Trump, deserves credit. It reflects his mastery of the conference and confidence he faces no internal threats, despite the ex-President’s multiple attempts to incite a revolt against him in the Senate.
The minority leader’s words were also characteristic of McConnell’s tendency to give his senators political cover – one reason his leadership position is so secure. Senators questioned about January 6 can now refer directly to their leader’s remarks without getting drawn into politically damaging quotes that might alienate them from supporters back home.
Critics may argue that McConnell’s remarks were too little too late. The Kentucky Republican has previously made his own accommodations with Trump, despite his disdain for the ex-President. His willingness to tolerate the lawlessness of the Trump presidency helped deliver the conservative Supreme Court majority that will endure for years – and for which McConnell and Trump will be remembered for generations. He vigorously condemned Trump for his role in inciting the Capitol insurrection.
But his decision not to vote for the ex-President’s conviction in his second impeachment trial, which could have led to his disqualification from future public office, represented a realization about the ex-President’s continuing hold over the party. And McConnell has already said that he’d support Trump in 2024 if he is the Republican nominee. The comment was a signal, if one were needed, that an ultimate choice between breaking with Trump or securing another spell as majority leader would not be a choice at all.
Several of McConnell’s colleagues were explicit about the party’s strategic path on Tuesday, reflecting anger over the RNC’s self-inflicted wound.
Sen. Thom Tillis said that the moment protesters entered the Capitol building, it was “no longer discourse. It was riot.”
The North Carolina Republican sought to refocus the attack on the Biden administration, saying, “I think that we as a party need to recognize that people are worried about the economy, they’re worried about the continuing struggles with Covid, they’re looking ahead, and that’s what they want us to do.”
A split that promises to widen
Republicans have a simple task in the fall – hammer Biden for high inflation, failing to fulfill his pledge to end the pandemic and for perceived weakness abroad. History, which is almost always unkind to presidents in midterm elections, could do the rest. But while McConnell sees the absurdity of Republicans losing sight of the goal, events on Tuesday showed that the GOP’s march toward extremism will never slow while Trump is dominant.
McCarthy’s goal isn’t necessarily different – his stand is motivated by a desire for power – but he sees a different way for the House GOP (and himself) to get there. While the California Republican briefly condemned Trump for the insurrection last year, he soon changed course, placing his bet on the ex-President’s still-adoring base to deliver the GOP the House in November. Trump could weaponize that majority for his anti-democratic ends and as a platform for a 2024 campaign.
But having made his choice, McCarthy’s hands are tied. Any deviation from the course would incur Trump’s wrath, and he’s already been warned by the ex-President’s acolytes his hopes of being elected speaker by his conference depend on total loyalty. Given that millions of Republican voters believe Trump’s lie that he won the last election, McCarthy may be making a sound political play, though one laced with cowardice as he whitewashes an attack on his own workplace that endangered his colleagues and then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump usually wins Republican-on-Republican fights
The RNC’s political malpractice in handing the media a days-long story that takes the heat off the Biden administration’s political problems baffles many mainstream Republican strategists.
“It’s a huge mistake,” Scott Jennings, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Tuesday.
“It’s an unforced error. As a political matter, it’s a massive distraction from what would be the correct political strategy for the Republican Party right now – talk about the future, talk about the state of the country,” Jennings said.
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, a Trump loyalist, may recognize that the attempt to pay homage to the former President backfired since she’s been misrepresenting what the resolution says since it passed on Saturday.
In an op-ed on Townhall.com Tuesday, she falsely accused the “corporate media” for inaccurately reporting about the resolution. And she accused the House select committee investigating the riot, which led to the deaths of four people and in which police officers were beaten up by Trump supporters, of “potentially ruining innocent peoples’ lives.” She also accused Kinzinger and Cheney of “cheapening the events of January 6 by participating in Nancy Pelosi’s partisan committee.” (House Republicans originally agreed on the need for a bipartisan September 11-style independent commission to investigate the insurrection. But after Trump loudly complained, McCarthy helped to derail the plan.)
Given the unusual spectacle of Republican senators openly contradicting the language in the RNC censure, it might be tempting to ask whether the first cracks are appearing in the ex-President’s hold over his party. McConnell’s criticism came less than a week after Pence blasted as “un-American” Trump’s claims that he could have prevented the certification of Biden’s election win.
One day, Trump’s hold on the GOP may wane. But every clash since 2015 – between his increasingly extreme and autocratic movement and the party’s establishment – has resulted in victory for the former President. The lesson of the past seven years is that when it comes down to a choice between appeasing its leader and losing power, most of the GOP always falls into line.
And despite his stark criticisms of the RNC on Tuesday, no one expects McConnell to take a similar path as Cheney and Kinzinger, who have sacrificed their future in the party – and power – in order to challenge Trump.