Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is no rookie. His first stint in public office began in 1975, and he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1985. The Kentucky Republican has been elected to statewide office seven times, and has served during seven presidencies. It’s safe to say the GOP leader has learned a thing or two about American politics during his tenure.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s good at predictions.
In December 2016, for example, McConnell conceded that he assumed Donald Trump would lose. “It never occurred to me that he might be able to win,” the senator said a month after the election, adding that he didn’t think his party’s candidate “had a chance.”
The Kentucky Republican’s electoral expectations were hardly unreasonable. After all, it didn’t seem possible that voters would elect a buffoonish television personality to the nation’s highest office — right up until they did.
Nearly four years later, as The Washington Post reported, McConnell made a very different kind of prediction.
Hours after a mob ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a bid to block the certification of the 2020 presidential election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described himself as “exhilarated” about the potential damage to President Donald Trump. “I feel exhilarated by the fact that this fellow finally, totally discredited himself,” McConnell told Jonathan Martin, one of the authors of a new book called “This Will Not Pass,” when asked about his feelings on the violence and the rioters.
In the Jan. 7 interview, the longtime GOP senator added, in a metaphor referring to Trump, “He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
In other words, McConnell assumed he knew how the near future would unfold in the wake of the attack on the Capitol. Americans would see that Trump lied; he pushed those lies while dispatching a mob to his own country’s seat of government; and the crisis was so serious that there could be no political recovery for the then-president.
Trump maintained an absurd level of support despite a series of scandals throughout his painful term in the White House, but McConnell apparently assumed that Jan. 6 was qualitatively different. This was the final straw. This would politically bury Trump. This left the hapless Republican “totally discredited.” This was the tragic end of an ugly chapter of our history.
Four days later, according to the same book, McConnell watched as the House prepared to impeach Trump for the second time. “The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a b**** for us,” the senator told two members of his team.
Or so McConnell thought.
Stepping back, there are a couple of angles to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that the senator’s failed predictions reflect an uncomfortable truth: McConnell’s expectations reflected a politician who didn't fully appreciate the degree to which his party’s politics were broken. He still assumed the contemporary GOP was a normal political party, which is simply not the case.
The Kentuckian saw the violence on Jan. 6 and assumed that common sense and common decency would prevail. His party would simply never allow Trump to remain its most powerful leader. But it did exactly that — because common sense and common decency aren’t especially important in the contemporary GOP.
The second angle is that McConnell has contributed to the problem in ways he may not fully appreciate.
As regular reader may recall, it was roughly a month after the Jan. 6 attack, in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s second impeachment trial, when McConnell delivered memorable floor remarks, condemning Trump’s “disgraceful dereliction of duty” on Jan. 6. The Senate minority leader added, “There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. No question about it.”
In the same speech, McConnell called out Trump for his “crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole ... orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”
The Kentucky senator went on to raise the prospect of Trump facing civil and/or criminal penalties for his obvious misconduct.
Two weeks later, McConnell appeared on Fox News and was asked whether he’d support Trump’s 2024 candidacy, if the former president again ran as the Republican nominee.
“Absolutely,” McConnell replied.
Earlier this month, Axios’ Jonathan Swan explored this further, asking the longtime senator about his “moral red lines.” McConnell eventually responded that he feels “an obligation” to support his party’s presidential nominee, no matter who that is.
The senator may have felt “exhilarated” on Jan. 7 by the prospect of never having to deal with Trump again, certain that Trump’s misconduct would forever bar him polite society, but it was McConnell who helped welcome him back into the fold by saying he’d put his party’s choices above the nation’s interests.