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Trump vs. McConnell: Latest round between GOP heavyweights has the highest stakes yet

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (center) looks toward former President Donald Trump at the White House in 2020.
Stefani Reynolds
CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (center) looks toward former President Donald Trump at the White House in 2020.

The Russian threat to Ukraine has Washington on edge. No one wants the heightened tensions in Eastern Europe to escalate into war. But there's at least one prominent Republican in the Capitol not complaining that the media spotlight has shifted overseas.

Last week, Mitch McConnell, the seven-term Republican senator from Kentucky who has been his party's leader in the Senate for the past 15 years, found himself locked in a high-profile confrontation with the former president, who insists he is still the party's leader.

It was not the first round of this long-running bout, but it was perhaps the most clarifying and the most consequential for the elections this fall and in 2024.

McConnell had felt compelled to respond when the Republican National Committee censured two Republican members of the House for serving on the special committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. The RNC had characterized the events on Jan. 6 as "ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse."

McConnell would have none of that. Unlike the members of the RNC, he actually witnessed what happened in the Capitol on that day. And he has always been clear about what he saw and what it meant.

"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 said last week.

That was no more than most of his party colleagues in the Senate or among the nation's governors would say. But he was saying it in plain English in public with reporters gathered to hear it. And he was saying it in the certain knowledge that his defense of the investigating committee and the legitimacy of the 2020 election would bring down the wrath of Donald Trump.

"Mitch McConnell does not speak for the Republican Party and does not represent the views of the vast majority of its voters," Trump shot back in a statement released by his Save America PAC. "He did nothing to fight for his constituents and stop the most fraudulent election in American history."

It is hard to find a comparable exchange between a president and a Senate leader of the same party anywhere in U.S. history.

To be sure, presidents have often crossed swords with the leaders of the opposition party and not infrequently disagreed with those of their own party. But the latter disputes are generally not put out for public consumption. The fratricidal nature and sharp wording of the Trump-McConnell feud are unprecedented.

The scenario was different in 2002

Late in 2002, Republican President George W. Bush distanced himself from his own party's Senate leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, after Lott made a stunning remark at a retirement party for Strom Thurmond. Lott had suggested the country "wouldn't have had all these problems over the years" if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, when Thurmond was the segregationist nominee of the States Rights Party.

That led to Lott stepping down as leader, making way for another senator with closer ties with the White House. But Bush was the sitting president at the time, still riding a huge wave of public support in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and preparing the nation for an impending war with Iraq.

Trump is scarcely in a comparable position, having lost his bid for reelection and deeply divided the country.

And McConnell is in no sense likely to step down. He has far more experience and far more achievements as leader than Lott. The crux is that he is backed by most of the GOP senators who are his most immediate and important "constituents."

That is why McConnell is well-positioned to break out to the upside on his current status as the minority leader in a 50-50 Senate. Republicans need just one more seat to make that happen, and it could happen any time a vacancy occurs, or it could come with the midterm elections in November. McConnell's colleagues know there is no one more likely to oversee a successful electoral season than McConnell.

In 2014, for example, while serving in the Senate minority leader role, McConnell helped recruit and raise money for that fall's strong lineup of challengers who defeated five Democratic incumbents and captured an additional four seats from Democrats who had retired. That gain of nine seats (no GOP seat went Democratic) set McConnell up with a clear majority to resist Barack Obama on nearly every front in his last two years as president.

But McConnell knows that a sweep of that kind is far from automatic. He was also the party leader for the Senate election cycle in 2012, when vulnerable Democrats in Missouri and Indiana escaped because the Republicans nominated weaker candidates. At that time, the surging influence of the Tea Party was being felt throughout the country and helping hard-line insurgents win primaries over more mainstream Republicans.

If something similar were to happen this year, one of two scenarios that McConnell wishes to avoid could play out in the next round of voting for party leader. In one, the pro-Trump rivals who beat McConnell's preferred candidates get to Washington and vote for someone other than McConnell for leader. Two have already pledged to do so.

In the alternative scenario, the pro-Trump rivals get the GOP nominations and lose to the Democrats in November. That might not only frustrate McConnell's drive for a clear majority but endanger his base of 50. Republican nominations are up for grabs in at least three states (Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina) where Democrats have a shot at winning this fall.

In that event, if his party were to lose ground when it expects to gain, McConnell would be less assured of keeping his job. This would be especially true assuming Republicans do take over in the House and Trump becomes an official candidate for 2024 and calls for McConnell's ouster.

McConnell's real problem is that the Republican primary voters this year may well resemble those of 2012 more than those of 2014. The party has continued to move in the direction once denoted in the phrase Tea Party and now symbolized by Trump.

That is the message in the RNC statement and in countless polls showing most Republicans say Trump actually won reelection in 2020 – despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

The problem is that McConnell is not just dealing with Trump. He is dealing with the realities of the Republican Party that elevated Trump in 2016 and have most of the party's ranks following Trump's lead today.

Any lingering doubts about this can be dispelled by reading the new book by New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters, Insurgency: How The Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted. Peters has been following developments on the American right in the years since the original Tea Party demonstrations in 2009.

He has interviewed Trump, but most of his book is what he learned from interviewing several hundred others relevant to his overall subject over a period of years. Among them is Patrick Buchanan, the speechwriter for Ronald Reagan who became a columnist and TV commentator and three-time candidate for president. Peters argues that the "pitchfork Pat" ethos of Buchanan's campaigns in the 1990s kept right on marching through the first decades of the new century.

The movement was diverted but not derailed by the years of the War on Terror. Then, in 2008, its anger was back on a domestic track with the mortgage meltdown and Wall Street bailouts, then the elevation of the Obamas (Michelle almost as much as Barack). The movement found its next leading figure in Sarah Palin (whose 2008 speech as the vice presidential nominee has iconic status) and found its populist sweet spot with the rise of the Tea Party and opposition to Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act).

But the Tea Party could not get Obama out of office, and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney proved disappointing. The field of candidates for 2016 was huge, but the insurgents soon found their new voice in Trump, the celebrity wheeler-dealer and reality TV star. Trump fixated issues such as the birth certificate and the "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York City. He also savaged immigrants from Mexico and from Muslim countries. And he began denigrating the integrity of elections before he had even been a candidate.

Peters has a notebook full of other characters and campaigns, from the speechwriters who worked with Palin to the on-air personalities who labored for Roger Ailes, the legendary creator of Fox News. Peters seems to have been present and reporting at every significant turn in the Republican road, watching the party gradually shed its country club image in favor of pickup trucks and gun racks.

Trump is a product of toxic political climate, not a cause

Along the way, we meet many media figures who will figure in Trump's eventual rise, including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity but also the shadowy Andrew Breitbart and his buddy and successor Steve Bannon. We see the roles played by David Bossie at Citizens United and Stephen Miller as a Senate staffer, well before they become part of Trump's inner circle of hard-liners. Later, we see how they assume roles inside Trump's new regime, along with all those Fox personalities, one by one.

Peters conveys a keen sense of having been present, not at the creation of this new GOP but for a critical stage of its transformation. His conclusion is that Trump is less a cause of the toxic political climate than he is a product of it. One might add that if Trump is neither the fuel nor the fire, he has surely been a highly effective accelerant. Thanks to him, what had been smoldering in our political culture has burst forth with far greater reach and intensity.

Trump has brought the heat. To date, Mitch McConnell has managed to convert that heat in service of the conservative agenda he himself wanted to achieve. The results have included a paring back of federal regulations and taxes and the repopulating of the federal judiciary.

This year, with Trump out of office but never out of mind, McConnell has to harness his insurgent energy again to pursue his own goals. And that will be a special challenge given that this time much of the heat is now being directed at him.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 14, 2022 at 10:00 PM MST
In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly said Mitch McConnell is a six-term senator. He is currently serving his seventh term.
Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.