On the final full day of Donald Trump’s presidency, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put the blame for the US Capitol riot squarely on the 45th president.
“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “They were provoked by the President and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”
It’s the latest public sign of McConnell’s desire to flush the Trump years from the Republican Party. McConnell signaled last week, following the House’s impeachment – again – of Trump that he was reserving judgment on whether he would consider voting to convict the President in the coming Senate trial. And late last year, McConnell publicly declared that Joe Biden was the President-elect following the Electoral College certification of the results.
Plus, there’s this: Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary for much of his term, resigned in protest following Trump’s actions (and inactions) in the Capitol riot. Chao is married to – yup , you guessed it! – McConnell.
McConnell’s moves are all designed to do one thing: Create as much distance as possible between himself (and the party’s establishment) and Trump. Put another way: What McConnell is trying to do in the last few days of the Trump administration is ensure that the President is in the rear-view mirror of the GOP as soon as possible.
This is purely a political calculation by McConnell. He knows that Trump is absolutely radioactive to a large number of Americans, including many people who lean toward Republicans but who either voted for Biden or stayed home in 2020. And that Trump’s ability to punish those who publicly cross him has already been reduced with his deplatforming on Twitter and Facebook and will erode even further on Wednesday, when he is no longer the president.
Given those twin realities, McConnell is leading the charge against Trump within the GOP. Which makes perfect sense.
But that doesn’t mean that McConnell isn’t taking a risk by pushing the divide between Trump and the party establishment. He is – in two major ways:
1) Trump may be less popular among Republicans than he was before the January 6 riots, but a majority of people who identify as GOPers still not only support Trump but also believe that he was “definitely” or “probably” the actual winner of the 2020 election. Which means that Trump still has power – particularly among the party base, which tends to play an outsized role in deciding its nominees up and down the ballot. Trump and his followers have pledged political retribution against those senators and House members who refused to object to the Electoral College results, and if they can field candidates to primary people like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or South Dakota Sen. John Thune, it could create real problems for McConnell and his efforts to win back the majority in 2022.
2) McConnell’s conversion on Trump is very sudden – and transparently motivated by political concerns. After all, McConnell didn’t have an issue with Trump when they were working together to confirm three Supreme Court justices and hundreds of lower court appointees over the past four years. And McConnell largely avoided blasting Trump for the many, many things the President said and did that were either anathema to GOP policies and beliefs or were plain dangerous to the country.
What McConnell is hoping with his decision to run from Trump as fast as possible, then, is that the President’s threats to take on GOP incumbents are more talk than walk and that the general public has a very short memory about his (and the broader GOP’s) relationship with Trump.
It’s a lot to ask – and hope for. But this is where the GOP (and its leaders) find themselves on the verge of the post-Trump presidency political world – flying into the future on a wing and a prayer.