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Key GOP senators remind McConnell: Shielding Trump isn't enough

McConnell and McCarthy are learning the same lesson: for many Republicans, shielding Trump from consequences is important, but not enough.
Image: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a news conference on Dec. 8, 2020.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a news conference on Dec. 8, 2020.Greg Nash / Pool / AFP via Getty Images file

The week after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as members of Congress considered an article of impeachment against Donald Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) seemed eager to thread a political needle.

The California Republican, reading from prepared remarks on the House floor, denounced the idea of impeaching the then-president for having incited insurrectionist violence, while he simultaneously tried to appear reasonable about Trump's obvious misconduct. "The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters," the House GOP leader conceded.

McCarthy probably hoped such an approach would satisfy everyone: he acknowledged Trump's wrongdoing, while taking steps to shield his party's president from any meaningful consequences. The Republican, of course, quickly discovered that he had it backwards: standing in the way of accountability incensed Trump's critics, while McCarthy's hollow criticisms infuriated the then-president. Indeed, Trump reportedly raged about McCarthy having "bowed to pressure" and failing to show absolute, genuflecting fealty.

The message to the GOP leadership wasn't subtle: shielding Trump from consequences is important, but it's the first step not the last.

A month later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) adopted a similar approach, voting against convicting Trump in his impeachment trial, but delivering floor remarks denouncing the former president's obvious wrongdoing. As TPM noted, McConnell is facing similar intra-party pushback.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) took aim at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Monday for scolding former President Trump for inciting the mob behind the deadly Capitol insurrection last month. Despite McConnell's vote to acquit Trump, Johnson took offense to the Senate minority leader's "scathing" Senate floor speech — much like fellow Trump loyalist Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) did during an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

Graham got the ball rolling the day after McConnell's comments, complaining to Fox News that the Senate GOP leader simply wasn't partisan enough for Graham's liking.

"I think Sen. McConnell's speech, he got a load off his chest, obviously, but unfortunately he put a load on the back of Republicans," Graham said. "That speech you will see in 2022 campaigns."

This is, to my knowledge, the first time in Mitch McConnell's lengthy career that he's been accused of being insufficiently focused on partisanship and Republicans' electoral goals.

Nevertheless, yesterday, Ron Johnson pushed a similar line, admonishing McConnell for "providing a scathing speech" about Trump, which the Wisconsin senator said did not reflect the views of GOP senators broadly.

"So you've got our leader out there really representing himself — and that's his right to do — but at the same time, he has to realize as our leader, what he says reflects on us," Johnson said. "I didn't particularly like it."

In a separate interview, with WTAQ in Wisconsin, the GOP senator added, "I would like to see Leader McConnell zip his lips. This is not helpful."

On the one hand, McConnell is facing criticism from many observers (including me) over the disconnect between his rhetoric and his actions, and on the other hand, he's also facing criticism from his own members for having the audacity to acknowledge Trump's misconduct while shielding Trump from consequences.

McConnell and McCarthy are learning the same lesson: threading this needle is harder than it looks.