McConnell in hot seat as pressure mounts over Trump, Russia

Published 6:06 am Tuesday, December 4, 2018


Guest Columnist

Mitch McConnell spent most of his career aiming to be leader of his party in the United States Senate, and now he’s held the job longer than any other Republican. But he surely didn’t expect that he would have to deal with a president who has hijacked and transformed that party, makes falsehoods a regular part of his utterances, regularly displays disregard for the rule of law, and makes McConnell’s job more difficult.

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On the other hand, President Donald Trump is also the man whose upset victory in 2016, and relentless campaigning in 2018, helped keep McConnell and Republicans in the majority. And after a couple of rough patches more than a year ago, the president and our senator seem to be closer than ever.

“He goes down as the greatest leader, in my opinion, in history,” Trump said of McConnell at a Kentucky rally Oct. 13. (He surely meant “legislative leader.” He added later, “He’s better when I’m president than he ever was before.”)

But the relationship of these two very different politicians — one of the more important relationships in the world right now — is being tested again, as the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election swirls closer to Trump; as Senate Republicans are divided on a criminal justice reform bill sought by Trump and Sen. Rand Paul, among others; and as most of the nation’s political and foreign policy establishment is aghast at Trump’s refusal to accept intelligence that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia likely ordered the murder in Istanbul of a Saudi journalist who lived and worked in the U.S.

After being denied a briefing from the CIA director, the Senate voted 63-37 to revive a resolution it had tabled in March to withdraw American support for the Saudis’ war against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. McConnell voted against the motion, but said “some kind of response” was needed: “What obviously happened, as basically certified by the CIA, is completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world.”

On Russia, it was probably no coincidence that Trump canceled his meeting with Vladimir Putin soon after his former lawyer pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, in testimony that mirrored the written answers Trump had given to Special Counsel Robert Mueller about business in Russia. And after Mueller said Paul Manafort, one of Trump’s serial campaign managers, had lied to the FBI, invalidating a plea agreement, Trump publicly dangled the prospect of a pardon for Manafort, which would amount to obstruction of justice: a target of the investigation letting a key material witness off the hook.

Yet, to renewed pleas to bring up a bill that would protect the investigation, McConnell said once again, “This is a solution in search of a problem. The president is not going to fire Robert Mueller.”

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the Republican pushing the bill, said, “I can’t for the life of me understand why more of us in the Senate aren’t concerned about this investigation.” Perhaps they fear Trump’s wrath. Or maybe they believe McConnell’s repeated declaration is actually an implicit warning to the president — that he had better not. Perhaps their secret slogan is “Keep calm and listen to Mitch.”

Democrats are more talkative. Delaware Sen. Chris Coons told Politico, “I think, frankly, at the end of the day, Leader McConnell has gotten reassurances from the president that he won’t act against Mueller, but those assurances are undermined every single day when President Trump both tweets untrue criticisms of Robert Mueller and his investigation and does other things that are unexpected or unconventional or unjustified.”

McConnell doesn’t publicly discuss his conversations with Trump. I’ve voiced hope that he has told Trump that firing Mueller would get him impeached, and maybe even convicted and ousted. That outcome seems less likely now, since the president has proven he has such a tight hold on such a large part of the Republican base. It seems unlikely that 20 of the 53 Senate Republicans would vote with the 47 Democrats for the 67 votes to convict, unless Trump is proven to be guilty of treason or something closely approaching it.

House Democratic leaders have indicated they won’t favor impeachment unless they think Trump will be convicted, because they don’t want to launch a failed impeachment — something Republicans did against Bill Clinton, to their regret.

But the story is still unfolding. McConnell is a lawyer who didn’t like practicing law and was always bound for politics; now he may be in the most critical position to defend the rule of law against a president who often sounds more like wannabe fascist dictator than a republican leader. Or a Republican leader.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.