Mitch McConnell and the party of Trump

The Old Crow as the last fusionist

mitch mcconnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Getty)
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Welcome to Thunderdome, where this week the biggest news in politics has nothing to do with the presidential election — it’s the decision by Mitch McConnell to step down after leading the Senate Republicans for seventeen years. McConnell’s choice to exit was inevitably going to come at some point, and announcing it this early allows him to escape the many questions about how he’d potentially work with President Trump in the future. McConnell doesn’t want to have to play pretend, and after his bout with recent health issues, he also eliminates the ability of Democrats to…

Welcome to Thunderdome, where this week the biggest news in politics has nothing to do with the presidential election — it’s the decision by Mitch McConnell to step down after leading the Senate Republicans for seventeen years. McConnell’s choice to exit was inevitably going to come at some point, and announcing it this early allows him to escape the many questions about how he’d potentially work with President Trump in the future. McConnell doesn’t want to have to play pretend, and after his bout with recent health issues, he also eliminates the ability of Democrats to play games of comparison around Joe Biden’s age and enfeebled nature. It’s going out in a time of his own choosing — in sports, business and politics, that’s a rare thing to accomplish.

McConnell’s legacy will be debated in the coming months, but it’s impossible to comprehend how much he has been the deciding factor in the direction of the party for the past two decades. The impact he had on the judiciary is unmatched in the history of the country. The way he ruled the Senate, criticized by many, also charted the path for legislation from the top down. But he also should be appreciated as perhaps the last fusionist leader, grounded in the era of Ronald Reagan.

Elected to the Senate at the young age of forty-two in the Reagan “Morning in America” curb-stomping of Walter Mondale in 1984, McConnell toppled the incumbent Democrat to win his first Senate election by about 5,000 votes. It was the closest race of the cycle, and the only GOP Senate flip. McConnell would truly start to make his mark on the body as a political operator more than a decade later, when he took over the NRSC and climbed the ranks of leadership.

McConnell’s relationship with donors was a powerful weapon that he used to try and shape the character of the body — with meandering success, and in the Tea Party era, notable failures. Yet not so when it came to actually running the Senate how he pleased, his capabilities were rarely matched. It’s not wrong to think of him as a stubborn Bill Belichick: hated when you were coaching across the field from him, but also hated for how often he was good at it.

The question now becomes: who will replace someone this significant? And what does the Senate want out of their next leader? I ran through the options here. Given that this decision will come in the wake of the November election, much of this has to do with how close the Senate wants their leader to be to Donald Trump, who may very well be back in the White House.

The Senate certainly has a stronger representation of pro-Trump figures than it did in 2016, but they’re still not a majority of the conference — in fact, as one pro-Trump senator told me yesterday, a secret ballot would probably still find a majority opposed to Trump’s renomination. But they do have to work with him, and they want to have a meaningful impact on the policy decisions to serve the interests of multiple senators.

There’s also the generational issue — going from an eighty-two-year-old to someone in their seventies, such as Texas’s John Cornyn or John Barrasso of Wyoming, may not be a significant enough step for the younger crew. While John Thune has to be considered the front-runner at this point, there are several other options — including Montana’s Steve Daines, currently at the NRSC, or Florida’s Rick Scott, who was backed by some in a protest vote against McConnell last year. And there’s always the possibility that someone like Marco Rubio wants to finally take the reins.

For my money, though, the dark horse who may emerge as making the most sense is Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He’s not yet fifty, gets along well with multiple factions and has navigated his relationship with Trump carefully. He also voted, along with twenty-eight other GOP senators, against the recent Ukraine aid bill despite his reputation for hawkishness. Whether the old hands of the Senate GOP are comfortable with him as their leader, though, is another question entirely. When generational shifts happen, they can happen quite suddenly — and Washington has been waiting on such a shift for a very long time.

Listen to our latest episode of the Thunderdome podcast here, on this and more.

Expect attacks on the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court said they would consider Trump’s immunity claims, and everyone is losing their minds about it — because of the schedule, you see. They aren’t hearing the case quickly enough to guarantee that Trump will face any kind of ramifications to prevent him being on the November ballot, which was the aim all along. More from New York magazine:

Trump will likely still face at least one trial before the election, but it probably won’t be the Big One in DC. It’s now all but certain that the Manhattan DA’s indictment of Trump for falsifying business records around hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels will begin on March 25. But that case involves a paperwork offense committed eight years ago, which the feds had previously declined to charge. Trump may well be convicted — most criminal defendants lose at trial, and a Manhattan jury will be decidedly hostile — but he likely won’t face jail time, and it’s questionable whether the verdict will have substantial political impact on undecided or swing voters. The Mar-a-Lago classified-documents case might happen as well, but the judge has signaled a willingness to move it back, perhaps to after the election. The Fulton County district attorney’s case has no set trial date and zero chance of happening before the end of 2024.

We’ve seen widespread consternation directed at the Supreme Court for its decision to grant certiorari (to take the case, that is) on Trump’s immunity claim. No doubt this development vastly improves the former president’s chances of avoiding trial until after the election. But it’s wrong to attribute the Court’s decision to nefarious intent or some grand plan to help Trump skirt the law.

Let’s be clear here: on the whole, this case is proceeding on a normal (or, if anything, expedited) timeline. Smith filed his indictment in August 2023, and it’s exceedingly rare for a federal indictment of this scope and complexity — with discovery including over 13 million pages of documents and thousands of hours of video — to get to trial in less than a year and a half. And it’s fast, if anything, for the Court to grant certiorari within three weeks of the filing of a petition and then to hear oral arguments less than two months later. CNN’s Supreme Court expert, Joan Biskupic, notes that “overall, the timetable is fast compared to the regular calendar for high-court briefing.” If there were no election around the corner, nobody would raise an eyebrow at the pace of this case or the Court’s decision to take it. Certainly, the Court has declined to expedite the case to Smith’s liking, but that’s not the same as delaying it.

It requires a combination of armchair psychology and conclusory narrative generation to argue that the Court somehow wants to do Trump a solid and decided to take the immunity case just to prevent a preelection trial. The justices all have life tenure, of course, and they don’t owe Trump a thing; I suspect they all see him fundamentally as a clown (except maybe Clarence Thomas; he may be genuinely enamored). There’s nothing Trump can do to help or hurt any of them, even if he is reelected. And this same Court has famously rejected many cases to Trump’s personal and political detriment — including his bogus challenges to the 2020 election — often to gleeful cheers about how “Trump’s own judges” refuse to do his bidding.

So who gets the blame here if the trial slips past the election? Trump’s the defendant — the one whose personal liberty is at stake and who might die behind bars if he loses — and he is absolutely entitled to defend himself zealously. Any marginally competent defense lawyer would raise the immunity argument and aim to get the trial moved until after the election. This isn’t about lying down to appease the political wishes of some broad swath of the general populace; this is blood sport with Trump’s hide on the line, and this is how the game is played. If you want to cast blame, look across the courtroom at the Justice Department. They’re the ones who controlled the timeline yet dithered away more than two and a half years before indicting, leaving virtually no margin for error to get the case tried before November 2024.

As for the justices, they have every right — a responsibility, even — to rule on the immunity issue. This case is why we have a Supreme Court in the first place. It raises unresolved issues of enormous consequence that implicate the scope of executive powers and the separation of powers; it’s tough to come up with a more obvious textbook example of a Supreme Court–bound case. As one skilled practitioner recently insisted, “Given the weighty and consequential character of the constitutional questions at stake, only this Court can provide the definitive and final resolution of respondent’s immunity claims that this case demands.” Know who said that? Jack Smith, back in December, when he was begging the Supreme Court to take the case.

Axios acknowledges that this is moving about as fast as the Supreme Court ever moves — but that won’t stop partisan idiots from claiming that the Court has dashed their hopes of preventing Trump from standing for election. See MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, or for a more extreme variety, Elie Mystal. Their reaction should make clear the obvious: this was all just a partisan effort to keep Trump off the ballot while also making him the GOP nominee. It just blew up in their faces.

Biden and Trump’s dueling border visits

Eagle Pass and Brownsville, what’s the difference?

President Biden and former president Donald Trump will each visit the US-Mexico border Thursday, as the two likely 2024 opponents seek to blame the other’s party for record illegal crossings that are a top concern for voters. 

Biden, who will make his second trip to the border as president, is expected to meet with Border Patrol agents, law enforcement and local leaders, while blaming Republicans for blocking a bipartisan border agreement in the Senate that would have allowed the government to expel migrants if crossings surpassed a daily threshold of 4,000. After months of negotiations, Republicans ultimately said the terms didn’t go far enough. 

The trip is part of Democratic efforts to put more emphasis on immigration, which recent polls show is becoming a higher priority for voters. In a Gallup poll conducted between February 1 and 20, respondents named immigration as the most important problem facing the country, with a significant uptick in the number who characterized it that way compared with just a month ago. 

Michigan’s big winner wasn’t on the ballot

RFK Jr.?

Overshadowed by the Michigan primary Tuesday was the news that a political group behind Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has collected enough signatures to get him on the ballot as an independent in two swing states, Georgia and Arizona. Meantime, the two major parties keep marching toward a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch that makes millions of voters depressed.

Mr. Trump continues to dominate the Republican primary, and rust-belt Michigan is no natural stronghold for Nikki Haley. Yet Mr. Trump, running as a quasi-incumbent, earned 68 percent, barely two-thirds of the vote. Ms. Haley won 27 percent. The “uncommitted” ballot line took 3 percent. Another 2 percent of voters backed Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie, or other dropouts.

Mr. Trump again underperformed his polls. An Emerson survey out Monday had him beating Ms. Haley in Michigan 76 percent to 24 percent. A few weeks ago, Morning Consult said 79 percent to 19 percent. So when polls show Mr. Trump beating Mr. Biden in Michigan by two or four points, how confident should he feel? Either way, Mr. Trump’s job now ought to be trying to reassure Ms. Haley’s voters and win them over. He prefers antagonizing them.

Mr. Biden also has reason to fret. He faced no formidable primary challenger (sorry, Dean Phillips), but 13 percent of Democratic voters selected “uncommitted.” That’s more than 100,000 ballots. Mr. Biden’s consolers might point out that he won Michigan last time by 150,000, and he had sufficient cushion in the Electoral College without the Wolverine State. Opponents of Israel cast a protest vote Tuesday against Mr. Biden, but maybe Representative Rashida Tlaib and company aren’t prepared to repeat that in November if it might mean a second term for Mr. Trump.

Yet “uncommitted” Democrats in Michigan might be a larger category than Mr. Biden wants to admit. They were 14 percent in Kent County (Grand Rapids), 13 percent in Kalamazoo County, and 12 percent in Marquette County. Mr. Biden’s nominal primary opponents, the plucky Mr. Phillips and the spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, took almost 6 percent statewide. Mr. Biden’s margin in Michigan in 2020 was less than three points.

One more thing

How much will the Hunter Biden situation end up mattering? The House continues its impeachment work, and had their behind the scenes sitdown with the younger Biden this week. His softball interview with Axios was meant to send a message to the broader media audience that if he falls off the wagon, boy howdy, it’s the fault of those damned darned Republicans for asking tough questions! But it’s also clear that if this continues in the direction it seems to be, Democrats could easily cite it as a reason to ditch Joe in the coming months — along with the polls, the health questions, and the rebellious Michigan voter issues on Gaza, which we all know matter more to the outcome in November than anything Hunter actually promised or did.

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