After taking shot at Trump, McConnell now finds himself under the gun

Trump Breaks Silence, Calls on GOP to Replace McConnell.The former president issued a 600-word attack against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday.If Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again, Donald Trump, via 'The New York Times'.The Republican Party can never again be respected or strong with political "leaders" like Sen. Mitch McConnell at its helm, Donald Trump, via 'The New York Times'.Trump was responding to scathing remarks McConnell made about him after the Senate voted to acquit the former president of his impeachment charges.There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day, Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader, via 'The New York Times'.McConnell made the statement on the Senate floor after voting to acquit Trump.While the vote played out in Trump's favor, it was the most bipartisan Senate vote to impeach a president in the history of the U.S.Both men blame each other for Republican Senate losses in the 2020 elections.McConnell has been elected to lead the GOP an unprecedented eight times by unanimous vote

His scathing comments about Trump during the impeachment trial have given new cause for Republican division

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell’s colleagues may not have deep personal affection for their often-distant and inscrutable leader, but there is considerable appreciation for how he has spared them from difficult votes while maintaining a laserlike focus on keeping the Senate majority.

His approach Saturday at the conclusion of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial seemed aimed at doing just that. After voting to acquit Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 riot that invaded the Senate chamber, McConnell, R-Kentucky, began a fiery tirade, declaring him “practically and morally responsible” for the assault. In essence, McConnell said he found Trump guilty but not subject to impeachment as a private citizen.

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The strategy appeared twofold: Don’t stoke a full-on revolt by Trump supporters the party needs by voting to convict, but demonstrate to anti-Trump Republicans — particularly big donors — that he recognized Trump’s failings and is beginning to steer the party in another direction.

But it did not exactly produce the desired result. Instead, it has drawn McConnell into a vicious feud with the former president, who lashed out at him Tuesday as a “dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack,” and given new cause for Republican division that could spill into the midterm elections. And it has left some Republicans bewildered over McConnell’s strategy and others taking a harder line, saying the leader whose focus was always the next election had hurt the party’s 2022 prospects.

The miscalculation has left McConnell in an unusual place — on the defensive, with Trump pressing for his ouster, and no easy way to extricate himself from the political bind.

“McConnell has many talents, there is no doubt about it, but if he is setting this thing up as a way to expunge Trump from the Republican Party, that is a failing proposition,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said Wednesday.

Johnson, who is weighing running for reelection next year in a highly competitive battleground state, said support for McConnell was already emerging as a negative factor among Trump-backing Republican primary voters he speaks with back home. He said the minority leader risked becoming a full-blown pariah for Senate candidates if he did not move quickly toward unifying the party.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, speaks to reporters on the fifth day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP)
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, speaks to reporters on the fifth day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP)

Credit: Stefani Reynolds

Credit: Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said in an interview Tuesday night with Sean Hannity on Fox News that the fact that Trump and McConnell were “now at each other’s throats” was imperiling the political outlook for Republicans.

“I’m more worried about 2022 than I’ve ever been,” Graham said. “I don’t want to eat our own. President Trump is the most consequential Republican in the party. If Mitch McConnell doesn’t understand that, he’s missing a lot.”

McConnell’s Republican allies quickly circled around him, speaking in the void of his silence.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said McConnell was on “very solid ground” and that she had come away from conversations with him convinced that he was moving forward with eyes open, prepared for the “slings and arrows” that taking on a vindictive former president would attract.

“He’s not exactly a stream-of-consciousness communicator. He is very circumspect, very disciplined in his speech, and I think the speech he gave on the floor regarding former President Trump came right from his heart,” Capito said in an interview. She added, “His classic technique is to put it out there, say what he thinks and keep moving forward.”

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, his No. 2 whom Trump has already promised to target next year, said in a statement that McConnell had “my full support and confidence.”

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said McConnell had expressed his horror at what had occurred. “I think it genuinely offended him what happened in the Capitol that night,” Cornyn said. “Obviously, he spoke his mind.”

Trump spoke his mind as well. In his Tuesday broadside that attacked McConnell in sharply personal terms despite their close collaboration over the past four years, Trump urged his party to abandon the Kentucky Republican. He also threatened to initiate primaries against Republican Senate candidates he believed were not sufficiently supportive of his agenda.

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That is a possibility that worries Senate Republicans. Most are confident about gaining the one seat needed to take back the Senate in the coming 2022 midterm elections — unless their candidates engage in messy primary races that end up producing hard-right candidates who cannot win in the general election, an outcome that harmed Republicans in the past. Those memories have stuck with McConnell, who has promised to intervene in primaries if he believes a candidate is endangering the party’s chance of winning a general election.

McConnell’s allies acknowledged that Trump still had a hold on the Republican base, but one said that Republicans should still be able to come together in opposition to what they saw as a far-left progressive agenda pursued by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.

“The unfortunate consequences of Democrats’ power was on full display in the opening days of the Biden administration when it effectively fired thousands of union workers, when it canceled the Keystone XL pipeline and froze oil and gas leases on federal lands,” said Antonia Ferrier, a former communications director to McConnell.

Despite the heat of the current moment, some Republicans say they expect McConnell to weather the current hostile environment as he has in the past, aided by the passage of time and developments that diminish Trump’s hold on the party. They say he has survived challenges from the right in the past and stamped out primary challenges that threatened his preferred candidate.

“Two years from now,” Cornyn said, “things could look completely different.”

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