One of the enduring mysteries of the 2020 presidential election was Mitch McConnell’s apparent lack of interest in helping to reelect President Donald Trump. From the perspective of the White House, the political press corps, Democrats, and effectively everybody watching the race, there was one major thing they thought would go a long way to delivering four more years for Trump, and that was a major round of stimulus in the weeks before the election, complete with checks destined for voters. Given that a swing of fewer than 100,000 votes in the right states would have flipped the election to Trump, it’s fair to say that such a stimulus could indeed have turned the tide for Trump.
Yet McConnell stood in the way. We now know with certainty that the Senate majority leader is well aware of the political value of stimulus checks. “Kelly and David are getting hammered,” McConnell told his Republican flock, explaining why the party would be agreeing not just to a historic-sized piece of legislation, but also to one that included $600 checks for everybody with under a certain income. “Kelly,” of course, is Kelly Loeffler, the wife of the owner of the New York Stock Exchange, appointed to the Senate to replace the retiring Johnny Isaacson, and “David” is David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General.
From McConnell’s perspective, he has gotten nearly everything he could out of Trump.
Both Loeffler and Perdue are facing runoffs in January, and both have used their perch in the Senate to acquire financial information they used to profit on stock trades. But that’s not why they’re getting hammered. They’re getting hammered over checks. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have been blasting away for weeks at Perdue and Loeffler for blocking another round of stimulus, and in particular for blocking checks.
And so McConnell bent to political reality, doing what he didn’t want to do in order to keep control of the Senate. But if it was a price he was willing to pay for Kelly and David and control of the Senate, why wouldn’t he pay the same price to keep control of the White House? The option was available to him. Even if Democratic leaders would have preferred to pass the stimulus after the election, their obstruction beforehand would either have been politically untenable or, if held firm, politically suicidal.
So McConnell had the option to press the button, and he knew the button would help Trump, yet he didn’t press it. The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn is that McConnell did not want to help Trump win.
The calculation looks more and more reasonable the further it’s interrogated, and Trump’s chaotic response to passage of the latest Covid-19 stimulus is McConnell’s worst fear coming true.
From McConnell’s perspective, he has gotten nearly everything he could out of Trump: three Supreme Court justices, control of the federal judiciary, sweeping deregulation, and trillions in tax cuts. Yet for McConnell, dealing with Trump is also a daily humiliation, like being charged with babysitting a toddler who has been told by his parents that he’s the boss. What could Trump do for McConnell in a second term that would be worth the headache? And aside from the degradation, Trump represents a threat to McConnell’s vision of the Republican Party as a coalition led by billionaires and supported by the white working class. In Trump’s party, politicians like McConnell would not lead, but would be at the whim of the QAnon-inspired masses.
McConnell, for anybody paying close attention, made no secret of how he felt about Trump, both personally and politically. McConnell was more open about his view of Trump during the 2016 campaign, when he thought Trump was unlikely to win. “It’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues,” McConnell said on Bloomberg’s “Masters in Politics” podcast. Picking between Trump and Hillary Clinton, he said, “is not a happy choice.”
Once Trump was elected, McConnell resolved to make the best of it. “I’m not a mirror image of the president. But I’m glad he got elected,” McConnell told NPR in 2019. “It doesn’t mean you’re devoid of principle. But you have to make compromises and you have to try to advance the ball or you make no difference.”
But McConnell was angry after Trump’s notorious Charlottesville press conference, during which Trump said that “both sides” were to blame for right-wing violence that killed a protester in Virginia, though he took a day to respond. McConnell was equally livid when Trump engineered a government shutdown to push for funding for a border wall. A one-time China hawk, McConnell has since become an apologist for the Chinese government, regularly bristling at Trump’s trade war and rhetoric around China. Trump and McConnell routinely battled over what kind of candidate to back in Senate races (including in Georgia, where Trump wanted a Trumpier man than Loeffler.) And McConnell’s decision to skip the superspreader event that was the nomination announcement of Amy Coney Barrett is a prime example of his detached relationship with Trump’s White House.
“I couldn’t write the story to have two people who were more unlike than those two,” former McConnell campaign manager Janet Mullins Grissom told NPR.
McConnell knows Joe Biden well and has his number.
With Trump gone, McConnell becomes the most powerful Republican in the party again and, on some days, the most powerful politician in the country. McConnell knows Joe Biden well and has his number. The few times that Biden met McConnell at the negotiating table during the Obama years, McConnell left with Biden’s wallet.
The future is also likely better for congressional Republicans under Biden than under Trump. Republicans are expecting to make gains in the House in 2022, enough to win control of the chamber. With Trump in the White House in 2022, Democrats would likely be more fired up to resist him, giving them a better chance of winning the Senate and holding the House. If Biden’s transition is any guide to his presidency, his insistence on working with Republicans and refusal to use executive action will make GOP pickups more likely, damage the Democratic brand, and pave the way for Republicans to win back unified control of Washington in 2024 — by which time there will be more judicial vacancies to fill, more regulations to undo, and more taxes to cut. And, if McConnell has his way, this time he’ll be able to do it all without having to smile next to Trump.
Trump knows all of this. A master when it comes to recognizing hostility, loyalty, and sycophancy, Trump never fully embraced McConnell. On December 15, McConnell congratulated Biden as the nation’s president-elect, drawing a rebuke from Trump and ending McConnell’s halfhearted support of Trump’s soft coup attempt. Then Trump watched as McConnell snapped into formation to pass stimulus legislation aimed at rescuing flagging Republican candidates. As far as Trump is concerned, if McConnell wouldn’t save Trump, he doesn’t get to save anybody.
Trump, as he demonstrated this past week, simply can’t be trusted by McConnell or anyone else. His administration negotiated the Covid-19 relief package with Congress and urged its passage before Trump reversed himself and said that, actually, he was against it — demanding more money for checks and a raft of changes to various spending provisions, most included not in the Covid-19 section but in the omnibus spending bill that moved with it. McConnell and other leading Republicans spent the weekend pressuring Trump to sign it, and he finally caved quietly on Sunday night. It’s not hard to see why McConnell would rather grit his teeth through four more weeks of that, rather than four more years.