In the immediate aftermath of the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, Mitch McConnell thought he had finally gotten his wish: Donald Trump would be excised from the Republican Party for the role he played in fomenting the insurrection.
“I feel exhilarated by the fact that this fellow finally, totally discredited himself,” McConnell told The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin that night. “He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Couldn’t have happened at a better time.” (The episode is recounted in “This Will Not Pass,” a soon-to-be released book that Martin wrote with fellow New York Times reporter Alex Burns, that was excerpted Monday by The Washington Post.)
That snap judgment by McConnell seemed to make sense at the time.
After all, Trump had spoken at the January 6, 2021, “Stop the Steal” rally. He had told the crowd that “you’re not going to have a Republican Party if you don’t get tougher.” He urged them to march to the Capitol building. And once it became clear that the protest had turned into a violent riot, he waited for hours before kind of, sort of telling the crowd to disperse.
It looked – for all the world – like a fundamentally disqualifying series of acts undertaken by Trump. McConnell seemed to believe that, finally, this was the cataclysmic event that would drive Republicans away from Trump for good.
Almost a month later, he still appeared to believe it. While McConnell voted against convicting Trump in the Senate impeachment trial – arguing that since Trump was already out of office, he wasn’t eligible for conviction since the punishment would be removal – the Senate Republican leader made clear that he believed the time had come to move on from the former President.
“Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said at one point. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” he said at another. And McConnell closed with this: “The Senate’s decision does not condone anything that happened on or before that terrible day. It simply shows that senators did what the former President failed to do: We put our constitutional duty first.”
Pretty stark stuff, right?
McConnell saw what he believed to be Trump teetering on the edge of a cliff – and moved to shove him off.
And yet, as the days and weeks went by, it became increasingly clear that January 6 wasn’t the end for Trump – not by a long shot. If anything, the former President grew even stronger among the most hardcore base voters in the party following the insurrection.
Trump took to referring to some of those involved in January 6 as “patriots” and said he would consider pardoning them if he was elected president again. And he went on the attack against McConnell, calling him an “old crow” and trying to oust him from his position as Senate Republican leader.
It’s striking that McConnell, one of the top political minds in the Republican Party, so badly misjudged how January 6 would play with his party’s base. And it speaks to the fact that many Republican leaders remain removed from the beliefs of their party’s base.
Know who speaks the base’s language better than anyone? Donald J. Trump.