McConnell Senate floor 11092020
McConnell: Trump within his rights to weigh legal options
05:23 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell became on Monday the highest-ranking Republican in Congress to rally behind President Donald Trump’s effort to dispute the election results and invalidate Joe Biden’s victory.

“President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options,” McConnell said during a speech on the Senate floor Monday afternoon. “The President has every right to look into allegations and to request recounts under the law.”

McConnell’s speech followed a days-long pressure campaign from Trump and his closest allies, who privately urged congressional Republicans to support their evidence-free claims that the election was fraudulent. While a handful had taken up the cause, by Monday the President had grown frustrated that more top Republicans had not put out statements or gone on TV to amplify his message, according to two people familiar with the matter. 

The President, feeling as though McConnell and others had abandoned him, lashed out at some GOP allies, and even dangled the idea of not helping Republicans in two runoff elections in Georgia that will decide which party controls the Senate, according to one person told about the outburst. Multiple sources close to McConnell have denied Trump said this directly to McConnell.

While McConnell’s speech stopped short of endorsing Trump’s baseless allegations of fraud, it was a tacit acknowledgment of the leverage Trump holds over the party. 

“(McConnell) knows he needs Trump,” said a person familiar with the matter. “So you don’t want him blowing you up in the runoffs.” The person also said McConnell knows “being successful in Georgia is to keep Trump under the tent.”

That, more than anything, explains why McConnell stepped out in support of Trump, according to one veteran GOP strategist.

“He would probably be less accommodating if Trump didn’t have hostages,” said the strategist, referring to the power the President has to turn out voters in the runoffs. “How Trump behaves in the next 60 days is probably the single biggest variable at play.”

On Monday evening, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina echoed that sentiment in comments to CNN.

“I think what would hurt our chances in Georgia is if we don’t put these systems under scrutiny,” Graham said. “If you know about it, and you forgive it, you’re legitimizing it. I’m not legitimizing it.”

Together, Graham and McConnell’s remarks at least in part validated the President’s unsupported complaints. They also demonstrate how, even in defeat, Trump continues to wield considerable power over the Republican party – and likely will for years to come.

After four years in office, Trump’s populist brand of economic nationalism remains the unchallenged heart of the GOP. Though he is just the fourth incumbent president since World War II to lose reelection, Republicans have no choice but to continue to embrace him or risk alienating his substantial base of supporters. In conversations with half a dozen GOP strategists, aides, operatives, as well as numerous Republican lawmakers, this much is clear: Despite his defeat, Trump’s influence over the Republican party remains unquestioned.

“We need his voters. He has a tremendous following,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said when asked if there’s a connection between how Senate Republicans have handled Trump’s election claims and the Georgia Senate races.

“He could have a tremendously positive impact on the outcome of the Georgia Senate, and we hope that he engages,” Thune added.

Sticking with Trump

Unlike 2012, when Republicans did a major autopsy about their problems after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, top Republicans aren’t indicating they’ll change much now. They point to the huge amount of support Trump got and acknowledge his voice – and Twitter feed – will still be the dominant presence in the party even after Biden is sworn into office.

John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, October 13, 2020.

Asked if the GOP should change course in any way given Trump’s loss, Texas Sen. John Cornyn said: “He got 71 million votes – or roughly. The country is obviously divided by a rather thin margin.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has kept open the option of running himself for President in 2024, dismissed the idea that the party is done with Trump.

“I don’t think he’s going to go write his memoirs and play golf,” Rubio said when asked if the party is done with Trumpism. “I think he’s going to be a voice in American politics irrespective of how this turns out. And he should be. Tens of millions of Americans voted for him. He brought people in the Republican Party that have not voted Republican in their entire lives. It would be foolish to not learn lessons from that.”

Graham said he’s urging Trump to think about running in 2024 if the President’s legal challenges fall short. He said he’s spoken to Trump “on the periphery” about running again. Graham is going further than most other Republicans in joining Trump’s battle against the election results – and siding with the President on his rhetoric railing on the media over inaccurate polling before the elections.

“This movement is something real,” Graham said.

Graham later added: “In my race, you had polls that were complete bulls***. … With me, I’m still around here, we’re going to dig in hard.”

One of the few Republicans on Capitol Hill who has congratulated Biden is Romney (although Delaware Sen. Chris Coons told CNN Tuesday morning that several other GOP colleagues had privately expressed their congratulations through Coons).

When asked by CNN Tuesday if it would be helpful for the party with Trump still having influence after his loss, Romney said: “He certainly will have enormous influence – probably more influence than any other person would be my guess. How long that influence lasts through 2024, I don’t know. But people in the party who voted for him are supportive of him. And so I expect he will have a very substantial voice.”

Call and response

Republicans got a glimpse at how the President will use this voice late last week, when his eldest son sent a shot across the bow to party leaders.

Donald Trump Jr. speaks during the first day of the Republican convention at the Mellon auditorium on August 24, 2020 in Washington, DC.

On November 5, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted his demand that Republicans – in particular “2024 hopefuls” – speak out in support of the President’s baseless claims that fraud and irregularities were denying him his reelection – and even accused them of “cower(ing) to the media mob”. 

Almost immediately – and in a few cases, within the hour – those would-be successors jumped into action. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted a link to a donation page for the Trump campaign’s “legal defense” effort. On Fox News, Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley both expressed vague concern about the integrity of the election. 

And Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador, tweeted a more ambiguous call for “transparency and fairness” in the vote count and an appreciation for Trump’s boost to conservative candidates down the ballot. 

Notably, none of the 2024 hopefuls went so far as the President in declaring the election a fraud. But at the same time, very few elected Republicans – and none of the aforementioned – have explicitly acknowledged Biden’s projected victory.

It’s an illustration of how Trump’s personal interests continue to shape the calculations of those seeking to lead the party after his presidency. On the one hand, Trump’s dominant position and overwhelming popularity in the GOP means there’s still a lot of value in aligning with the President in spirit. 

“You’re going to have a lot of Republicans who are skittish to say anything and hope it goes away,” said a GOP operative on Capitol Hill. “They don’t understand why he was elected (in 2016), they don’t understand their support for him, and they are hoping it just goes away quickly and quietly. I don’t think it will.”

On the other hand, embracing Trump’s claims of election fraud is risky for Republicans seeking to build a majority coalition. That risk goes up if Trump loses cachet with GOP voters after leaving the White House.

“Being pro-Trump will pay off now,” said a Republican Senate aide. “But if things change?”

This story has been updated with comments from South Dakota Sen. John Thune.