President Donald Trump is now learning, in the words of his Rolling Stones campaign anthem, that he can’t always get what he wants. Sen. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, usually does.
The Republican Senate majority leader chose Tuesday, the day after the Electoral College affirmed President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, as the moment to pull the floor out from under the defeated President. He belatedly congratulated his old Senate colleague 38 days after his election victory that Trump still denies.
Putting his authority on the line, McConnell also asked his Senate colleagues not to stage any stunts when Congress meets for a joint session to ratify the election on January 6, effectively crushing the President’s hopes of an 11th hour reprieve, CNN reported.
The Senate leader’s recognition of the election’s result sets up a dynamic between him and Biden that will be crucial and fascinating when they face one another from opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. If McConnell clings to his majority after two run-off elections in Georgia in January, he will have a huge say in which of the new President’s Cabinet picks can win confirmation. Biden’s sweeping legislative plan could be under threat and nothing is going to have an easy passage through Congress if the current majority leader retains his current perch.
So his courteous words on Tuesday may not be much of a guide for how the relationship will unfold.
“Today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. The President-elect is no stranger to the Senate. He has devoted himself to public service for many years,” McConnell said, finally recognizing a reality cast in stone on November 3.
His move, characteristically, came in his own time after weeks remaining impervious to demands by Democrats and the media for him to acknowledge Biden’s rightful win. His indifference to pressure only emphasized his own power, a fact that in his deadpan way he appeared to relish. And his intransigence, which exacerbated the President’s corrosive assault on democracy, came as a blow to any hopes that Biden’s victory will transform the attitude of a Republican majority pre-programmed to confound Democratic Presidents.
Still, McConnell’s comments Tuesday were hugely symbolic, because they effectively put a lid on the Trump era. And his gesture toward Biden underscored how he plans to position himself as the counterbalance to the new President – a longtime Senate sparring partner for whom he has respect.
But the Kentucky Republican’s move was not without risk. By defying the President, he risks igniting a long running feud with Trump, who appears to be planning to set himself up as the GOP leader in exile after January 20.
McConnell’s hopes of retaining his perch as Senate majority leader hinge on two Senate run-offs in January in Georgia that may turn on whether Trump is able to coax his base voters out when he’s not on the ballot.
But at the same time, McConnell also knows that he needs to bolster his case that a Republican Senate will need to be a check on a Democratic President and House of Representatives, so GOP voters need to show whatever happens.
McConnell’s shift on the election came at a moment when his characteristic stonewalling has infuriated Democrats on another issue – the effort to pass an economic rescue bill to extend unemployment benefits to millions of jobless Americans. There were some signs of hope Tuesday that a scaled down measure could be agreed before the holidays, with issues like liability insurance for businesses that McConnell supports and direct aid to states which he opposes left for the new Congress and White House.
McConnell looks out for the interests of his caucus
McConnell’s move may have given GOP senators who are weary of being asked to congratulate Biden some cover. But unlike some of his colleagues, McConnell, who just won a new six-year term, is insulated from the fury of vengeful Trump voters with a new primary season looming. The veteran Kentucky lawmaker may also now feel the lash of conservative media commentators whose business model is deeply invested in Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen and Biden will be an illegitimate President.
But his long history of Senate scheming suggests that his decision would have been rooted in a cool assessment of how to advance his constant goal: advancing the interests of his own caucus and solidifying his own power.
By waiting so long to greet Biden as President-elect after November’s election, McConnell likely built the political capital he needs to shut down any embarrassing efforts by pro-Trump senators to block Biden’s inevitable ascent to the presidency.
The majority leader gave the White House a heads up before he took to the Senate floor Tuesday to congratulate the President-elect, according to a source familiar with the matter. And McConnell, knowing how the President enjoys praise, opened his remarks by painting Trump’s tenure as a period of rare accomplishments, praising him for delivering on promises of a Covid-19 vaccine, the economy, national security and veterans health care.
He dryly sweetened the pill he was about to deliver by remarking that “it would take far more than one speech to catalog all the major wins the Trump Administration has helped deliver for the American people.”
But McConnell then went on to deliver the words that Trump didn’t want to hear.
“Many millions of us had hoped the presidential election would yield a different result. But our system of government has processes to determine who will be sworn in on January the 20th,” McConnell said.
After praising Biden, McConnell also recognized his current colleague, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who will serve alongside the former longtime Delaware senator.
“I also congratulate the Vice President-elect, our colleague from California, Senator Harris. Beyond our differences, all Americans can take pride that our nation has a female Vice President-elect for the first time.”
Trump slammed his onetime ally in a tweet overnight, saying it was “too soon to give up.” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, in a briefing apparently called to attack the media, kept up the fiction that there may not be a transition but a “continuation of power” for Trump.
Prior to McConnell’s statement, some Republicans were not ready to fully concede that it was over for Trump. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma refused to comment on the Electoral College vote on Monday. And North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer failed to extricate himself from his delicate spot between Trump and reality with an incomprehensible hedge.
Asked whether Biden was President-elect, Cramer responded: “Well it seems to me that being elected by the Electoral College is a threshold where a title like that is probably most appropriate and it’s, I suppose you say official if there is such a thing as official President Elect or anything else.”
But Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who could be a key figure in the new Congress and a possible partner for Biden on some issues that do not offend his strong conservative beliefs, told CNN’s Dana Bash that the President’s supporters in the Senate now had an obligation to also accept the result of the election.
“I think Mitch McConnell did exactly what he needs to do,” Romney said. “But some of those really identified as strong Trump supporters, they would make a real difference if they came out and spoke and said you know what, we have to get behind the new President-elect. He was legitimately elected, let’s move on.”
Harris offers olive branch
Following McConnell’s statement, Harris graciously accepted his congratulations – in a way that appeared designed to open up an avenue for cooperation when Washington gears up after the holidays.
Much will still depend on the Georgia races, that could hand Harris, as president of the Senate, the crucial deciding voice in tied votes in a 50-50 Senate should both Democratic candidates prevail.
“I think it’s critically important. I applaud Mitch McConnell for talking to Joe Biden today,” Harris said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” set to air on Wednesday.
“You know it would have been better if it were earlier, but it happened and that’s what’s most important. So let’s move forward, let’s move forward and where we can find common purpose and common ground let’s do that. Let’s have that be our priority.”
Many Democrats, who watched McConnell’s hardball play to deny President Barack Obama his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and who have seen the majority leader relentlessly fill the courts with conservative judges, think any notion of cooperation harbored by Biden are fanciful.
But during the Obama administration, then-Vice President Biden was often tasked by the President with leading negotiations with McConnell. The Kentucky Republican and Obama did not try to hide their antipathy for one another. McConnell said he respected Biden because he understood the limits of his positions, and did not try to change his ideology, making compromise easier.
McConnell also wrote endearingly of the President-elect in his autobiography, “The Long Game,” poking fun at Biden’s garrulous reputation.
“As my dad would have said about the Vice President if they’d ever met: if you ask him what time it is, he’ll tell you how to make a watch,” McConnell wrote.
If that sense of good humor and willingness to seek limited, bipartisan deals survives the first few months of a new presidency likely to face blanket Republican opposition, it will be a miracle.
This story has been updated to include additional reaction.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.