Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reported to be “furious” and “done” with President Donald Trump. McConnell, the emerging thinking goes, is an institutionalist, and seeing the institution he presides over literally come under attack at the direction of his political ally, he’s at long last had enough. “If you’re McConnell, you want to be remembered for defending the Senate and the institution,” a Republican in McConnell’s circle told Axios. Being remembered for defending the Senate, of course, isn’t quite the same as actually defending the Senate. As we’ve seen over the last weeks (and years), collective American understanding and memory of an event doesn’t always reflect what actually took place. This daylight, however, between principled, clear-eyed action in the name of the public interest and the appearance of such action in the service of his own political self-interest is where McConnell, as an institutionalist, has made his career.
So it is unsurprising that headlines like this one are now being splayed across the New York Times: “McConnell is said to be pleased about impeachment.” That is not the same as supporting impeachment, mind you, and it definitively falls short of actively pursuing impeachment and removal of Trump from office. When it comes to McConnell, these distinctions matter. As the next days and weeks unfold, let’s not confuse “being pleased” with something with fighting for that something. The Times reporting, which has been seconded by other outlets, is that McConnell believes Trump has committed impeachable offenses and has said as much, privately. McConnell is pleased about impeachment, the Times reports, because McConnell “blames [Trump] for causing Republicans to lose the Senate” and thinks impeachment “will make it easier to purge him from the party.”
Purges and blame are without a doubt a good start when it comes to Donald Trump and his continued role in American public life—they are the adolescent version of responsibility and consequences, both of which are welcome. And if responsibility and consequences are suddenly en vogue in the Republican Party, even if it’s self-serving to the GOP elite, the right thing to do is still the right thing to do, even if done for the wrong reasons. If McConnell ends up doing the right thing, let’s not confuse it with valor. McConnell got what he needed out of Trump: hundreds of federal judges, three Supreme Court justices, stunning environmental deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, and the list of pet perks goes on and on.
In the meantime, McConnell covered for Trump, propping up his presidency, even as Trump tried to undo an election. McConnell did not acknowledge Joe Biden’s electoral victory until mid-December, nearly six weeks after the tally was clear and decisive. That six weeks of silence, along with comments legitimizing Trump’s legal disputes as “his right” to avail upon the courts, gave oxygen to the “stop the steal” madness. If Trump’s responsible for inciting the crowd on Jan. 6, McConnell is culpable for fomenting the Big Lie that got the rioters to Washington in the first place. “I’ve supported the president’s right to use the legal system, dozens of lawsuits, perceived hearings in courtrooms all across our country,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last week in defense of the result before conceding “this election actually was not unusually close.” Yet for months he said nothing as his party led Americans to believe the opposite.
When McConnell finally acknowledged Biden’s victory, he urged Republicans to avoid the Electoral College certification charade that was brewing ahead of Jan. 6, the very one that was underway when rioters stormed the Capitol. “McConnell’s warning underscores how the last-ditch bid to overturn the election is putting the GOP in a bind,” Politico reported in December. “On the one hand, Republicans are facing pressure from Trump and his allies to support his attempt to remain in power. And party leaders want to keep the base energized ahead of a pair of critical Georgia runoff races on Jan. 5 that will determine control of the Senate.” Doesn’t really sound like much of a bind when it comes to the public interest—just one for McConnell in maximizing his own self-interest and his party’s political interest, which have been one and the same since he took over its leadership in 2007.
Now McConnell is in a new bind, one of his own making. If there was any question of the GOP leader’s ability to control his party—and even his party’s feral president—here’s what GOP sources said this week of the majority leader’s power to influence the Republican caucus. “Several GOP sources said on Tuesday that if McConnell supports conviction, Trump almost certainly will be convicted by 67 senators in the impeachment trial,” CNN reports. “If Mitch is a ‘yes,’ ” a Senate GOP source said of Trump’s fate, “he’s done.”
“Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last week before it was stormed. “And a shared respect for the ground rules of our system.” After four years of fantastical thinking, and wringing every last political win out of it despite the consequences, the truth now, suddenly, best serves Mitch McConnell’s interests. In his floor speech, McConnell asked his colleagues if “we can still muster the patriotic courage that our forebears showed not only in victory but in defeat.” The answer is almost certainly no; McConnell and the GOP’s reservoir of courage ran dry long ago. But they can still do the right thing, even if for the wrong, self-interested reason. And that, at the moment, will have to be good enough.