There are three things we know about Republican politics right now. First, it is very much Donald Trump’s party. Second, Trump is very willing to impose divisive litmus test demands on 2022 candidates looking for his endorsement, even if it would be a lot easier to let Republicans run against Joe Biden and stay unified. And third, Trump really cannot stand Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or as he calls the Kentuckian, “Broken Old Crow” (a nickname Mitch professes to enjoy as an allusion to the favorite bourbon brand of his idol Henry Clay).
In recent months, Trump has repeatedly called for McConnell to be ousted from GOP leadership, and it’s hard to imagine Republicans denying the ex-president anything he demands. But getting rid of McConnell won’t be easy, and so far Trump’s effort doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction.
To be sure, Trump’s disdain for McConnell (which Mitch occasionally reciprocates) is nothing new; it goes back to the days when they uneasily coexisted as president and Senate majority leader. Trump periodically blasted McConnell for sins ranging from a refusal to nuke the filibuster to pass Republican legislative priorities, to his tolerance for disobedient Republicans like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins and Mitt Romney. More generally, McConnell is a swamp creature, a pure product of Washington if ever there was one, and an easy target for Trump when he wanted to lash out against the Republican Establishment even as its denizens were eating out of his hand.
But a couple of things changed this year in the bad romance of Donald and Mitch. For one thing, Trump doesn’t really need him any more. And for another, McConnell cast himself in the outer darkness for good by rejecting Trump’s bogus election fraud claims and then attacking Trump’s role in the Capitol Riot. McConnell essentially agreed to the merits of the impeachment case against the 45th president even as he opposed Senate conviction on grounds that it was all moot because Trump had already left office.
This fall, Trump has been regularly scorning McConnell for his legislative strategies in dealing with Biden’s agenda, blasting him for voting for the bipartisan infrastructure legislation (or as Trump called it, the “Elect Democrats in 2022/24 Act”), and for helping Democrats avoid a debt default. On Wednesday, Trump released a statement that concluded, “How this guy can stay as Leader is beyond comprehension—this is coming not only from me, but from virtually everyone in the Republican Party. He is a disaster and should be replaced as ‘Leader’ ASAP!”
The former president is, unsurprisingly, overstating things. His least inhibited House backer, Marjorie Taylor Greene, did publicly refer to the Senate majority leader as “Biden’s bitch” when the debt limit was last extended. And as Politico reports, Trump’s allies on Fox News are echoing his message:
The barrage of attacks on McConnell have been amplified by Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, who have also gone after the GOP leader on air this fall. Carlson, during a segment last week, announced that his show would begin regularly highlighting problems with McConnell, whom he described as “an instrument of the left.”
But so far, Trump has only secured promises to dump McConnell from two people who might have an actual say in the matter the next time he’s up for reelection as GOP leader — and they’re merely candidates for office. Former Missouri governor and 2022 Senate aspirant Eric Greitens, who is doubling down on the anti-Establishment rep he built before dual sex and corruption scandals forced his resignation in 2018, may have been bidding for Trump’s support with an early declaration of opposition to McConnell as leader (the former president hasn’t chosen a favorite in the very Trumpy Missouri field just yet). Kelly Tshibaka of Alaska, a Senate candidate who was already endorsed by the 45th president, also promised to oppose Mitch (though in her case it was kind of a no-brainer since McConnell is raising serious money for Tshibaka’s incumbent opponent, Lisa Murkowski).
Even if Trump starts actively demanding anti-Mitch pledges from every candidate who wants his endorsement, it’s not clear that there are enough senators or would-be senators in the line of fire to matter. 30 Republican senators are not up for reelection in 2022. And another 12 have no significant primary or general election opponents. There’s just not enough tinder for a fire under McConnell’s seat at this point.
A remark last weekend from a senator not up for reelection may have in fact been the most dangerous utterance so far for McConnell’s tenure as leader. On Fox News Sunday, Lindsey Graham took a few shots at Mitch for flip-flopping on his earlier hard-line statements on the debt limit. But then he made this interesting not-so-veiled threat:
If we’re going to be successful in 2022, we’re going to have to work together as a team. And here’s what I would say to every Republican: If you want to be … a Republican leader in the House or the Senate and you don’t have a working relationship with Donald Trump, you cannot be effective. So, I hope we’ll get on the same page here.
If Republicans fall short of taking back the Senate in 2022 (particularly if the GOP is romping to victory elsewhere) the disappointment might be enough to give front-bench Republican senators like Graham an opportunity to take a long look at securing fresh leadership. And if Trump does triumphantly return to the White House in 2024, he can probably instruct the troops on Capitol Hill to do whatever he wants, which would probably mean retirement for McConnell (who will be 82 that year in any event).
Still, there’s not much precedent for a defenestration of a Senate party leader. McConnell’s predecessor, Bill Frist, stepped down in 2007 in compliance with a self-imposed term limit pledge he took earlier. His predecessor, Trent Lott, left the leadership after a terrible gaffe in which he jocularly remarked that we’d have a great country if Strom Thurmond’s openly racist Dixiecrat presidential campaign had been successful in 1948. But you can go all the way back to Bob Taft in the early ’50s without finding a Republican leader of the Senate who was purged on grounds of ideology or incompatibility with party leaders. The wily McConnell would probably head for retirement the minute there was any chance he’s be shown the door, and watch from the sidelines with a big glass of Old Crow as his successor tried to placate Donald Trump.