As the Senate closed in on passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill, President Trump couldn’t resist taking one more poke at the guy who was once his most important ally on Capitol Hill.
“I have quietly said for years that Mitch McConnell is the most overrated man in politics—now I don’t have to be quiet anymore,” Trump groused in a Tuesday statement about the Senate minority leader. “He is working so hard to give Biden a victory.”
McConnell wants to move on. He doesn’t want to talk about Trump. He wants the GOP focused on the future.
But no matter what McConnell does, Trump won’t stop picking fights with the Senate’s most powerful Republican. And that’s creating headaches for the GOP leader and his party as they look to unify and move past the Trump era with an eye on winning back the Senate next fall.
Trump’s latest barrage of attacks irritated some GOP senators—including North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer, who was one of Trump’s earliest endorsers during his 2016 presidential bid.
“If anybody's gonna go after anybody they should be going after Joe Biden and his administration,” Cramer told VICE News. “It would be far better if he and every other Republican would aim their disgust at the people that are causing problems in our country, not those of us trying to solve them.”
Cramer, McConnell and 17 other Republicans defied Trump and voted for the infrastructure bill, a sign that Trump’s reach within the current Senate Republican conference is limited and may be on the wane.
McConnell even praised Biden after the infrastructure package passed, telling the Wall Street Journal that Biden “deserves a lot of credit for getting the Democrats open to reaching a bipartisan agreement on this bill.”
But it was telling that two of the Republican senators who helped negotiate the infrastructure package in the first place ended up opposing the final bill—both of whom just happen to be facing reelection next year. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran and Indiana Sen. Todd Young voted against the bill after Trump warned on Saturday that it would “be very hard for me to endorse anyone foolish enough to vote in favor of this deal.”
The three Republican senators thought to be the most likely to succeed McConnell as GOP leader, Sens. John Thune of North Dakota, John Cornyn of Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming, all opposed it as well.
And while Trump’s power isn’t as strong within the building his supporters stormed on January 6, there are few signs his grip on the GOP electorate has weakened much in the intervening months—a problem for McConnell as he turns towards the Senate campaign map.
The infrastructure bill’s passage happened just a few days before the six-month anniversary of the Senate’s February 13 impeachment vote, which marked the final chapter of a rancorous divorce after a four-year marriage of convenience between the two men.
McConnell voted against the impeachment because he didn’t view it as constitutional to impeach someone who’d already left office. But he flayed Trump for recklessly causing the Capitol riots with his repeated lies about the election, which he called “a disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” he said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”
Trump responded with an eight-paragraph screed that called McConnell a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” and “one of the most unpopular politicians in the United States.”
Trump’s team insists Trump’s latest attack came because he was furious the GOP was handing President Biden a political win and thought the infrastructure bill itself was garbage.
“They weren’t exactly friendly before. It’s not like these were two best friends and he was scorned after the election,” said a source close to Trump. “Neither one holds the other in too high of a regard. Trump thinks McConnell is a moron.”
Trump has released nearly a dozen statements blasting McConnell and Senate Republicans over the past few months, calling the longtime Senate GOP leader an “old crow” and a “spineless RINO” (Republican In Name Only).
Trump’s taunts have been met with an icy silence from McConnell.
McConnell said in January that he hadn’t spoken since mid-December, the day after he publicly declared that Joe Biden had won the presidency, and sources close to both men say that hasn’t changed.
McConnell was in a lose-lose political situation with impeachment. If he’d supported the effort, he could have brought enough Republicans along to block Trump from ever running again—but would have enraged Trump’s supporters and caused a potentially irreparable split in the party. By letting him off the hook, McConnell has given Trump a chance to continue to antagonize him from afar and bully his party’s candidates, forcing him to fight a guerrilla war to keep control of his conference now and for the future.
Fight over the GOP’s future
McConnell’s main focus is winning back the Senate. That means moving on from Trump as best as he can.
That’s why McConnell blocked the creation of a bipartisan committee to investigate the January 6 riots—he saw it as only risking more Republican infighting and exacerbating tensions with the powerful former president. It’s why Trump’s ongoing jabs are so frustrating for the GOP. And it’s why he’s quietly preparing to insert himself into Republican primaries as necessary to make sure electable candidates come through.
“You have to appeal to a general election audience. And some of the candidates who filed in these primaries clearly aren’t. I’ll be keeping an eye on that,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in June. “Hopefully, we won’t have to intervene. But if we do, we will.”
But while McConnell’s team dismisses Trump’s pull on Capitol Hill, they acknowledge that Trump is in a much stronger position when it comes to picking GOP Senate candidates next year. The former president remains immensely popular with the GOP base. McConnell, frankly, isn’t very well-liked by GOP voters, and hasn’t been even before Trump started flaming him. Most of the top GOP Senate candidates have already embraced Trump’s election lies. Republican candidates have little chance at victory if they’re labeled never-Trumpers.
“You can’t have a battle. When someone’s willing to push the TNT lever down no matter what you can’t win that,” a source close to McConnell told VICE News when asked if McConnell would directly take on Trump in any primaries “It’s ultimately lose or self-destruct so that’s not an option that someone like McConnell would ever entertain.”
McConnell might still be majority leader today if Trump hadn’t screwed up Republicans’ chances to hold two Georgia Senate seats in early 2021 with his outlandish attacks on the 2020 election, and he could reprise that role this fall in states across the country if McConnell isn’t careful.
And the same state could see a reprise.
Trump has been pushing hard for his old pal and University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker to make a bid for the Senate, declaring “Run, Herschel, Run!” back in March. But Walker has plenty of baggage—besides living in Texas and struggling in the business world, he has a publicly acknowledged history of mental illness, and faced accusations from his ex-wife that he violently threatened to kill her during one mental health crisis.
McConnell has privately expressed concerns that if Walker is the nominee the GOP will blow a winnable race against Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, according to sources, and he’s reportedly met with multiple other candidates.
McConnell’s top political advisor, Josh Holmes, made sure that a story unpacking Walker’s significant political baggage was read by as many people as possible—a signal of where McConnell-land stands on Walker:
Both Trump and McConnell allies say it’s too soon to know whether they’ll come to open blows in the race. Trump’s pre-endorsement has so far managed to keep bigger-name candidates from jumping in against Walker, and it’s unclear whether he’ll even run. But a primary could be explosive—and potentially damaging for the ultimate nominee.
Establishment Republicans are also deeply concerned about disgraced former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who’s looking to make a comeback after a nasty sex and blackmail scandal forced him from office in 2018. His plan is to be the loudest pro-Trump candidate in a crowded field, and he’s criticized McConnell for coming at Trump after January 6.
McConnell’s allies privately say they will do everything they can to keep Greitens from the nomination, which could put an otherwise safe seat in play. Greitens has the support of many Trump hangers-on like Kimberly Guilfoyle, Trump’s former campaign aide and Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, as well as Rudy Giuliani, former interior secretary Ryan Zinke, and former White House aides Sebastian Gorka and Boris Epshteyn. It’s unclear if Trump himself will endorse, however.
Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a close Trump ally, said Trump’s endorsement would “make a difference for sure, in the Republican primary,” but said there “was a lot of game to play” left in the race.
But the prospect of Trump endorsing Greitens has establishment Republicans on edge.
In Alaska, Trump has already endorsed a primary opponent against Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the seven Republicans who voted for his impeachment. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is publicly backing Murkowski, and the two will directly tangle in a complicated all-party ranked-choice election.
Wisconsin is a big question mark. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, a close ally of Trump and headache for McConnell, told VICE News there was “still plenty of time” before he’d make a decision on whether he’ll run again.
But it’s not just swing states that could feature open warfare between Trump and the GOP establishment— and Alabama has the potential to be the nastiest race. Rep. Mo Brooks viscerally hates McConnell, especially since a McConnell-aligned super PAC dumped millions of negative ads to destroy his previous Senate bid in 2017.
Brooks called McConnell “head of the swamp” and said he’s “got to go,” during that race, and refused to say if he’d support McConnell as leader this March. And he has Trump’s endorsement in the deep red state—largely because he played a prominent, vocal role in Trump’s “Stop the Steal” efforts.
Retiring GOP Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a McConnell ally, has rallied establishment Republicans around Katie Boyd Britt, his former chief of staff who went on to run the Alabama Business Council.
She raised an impressive $2.2 million in her first three weeks as a candidate, an impressive sum. That pissed off Trump, who called Shelby a “RINO” who was “pushing hard to have his ‘assistant’ fight the great Mo Brooks for his Senate seat”—and accused McConnell of having a hand in helping them.
“She is not in any way qualified and is certainly not what our country needs or not what Alabama wants,” he said in sexist comments belittling her career.
McConnell is likely to help her behind the scenes as much as he can, and if the race is close allies may well intervene to help her.
Shelby said he was sick of Trump’s sniping.
“I don’t think it’s good for Trump. I don’t think it’s good for McConnell. It’s not good for the party. It’s not good for the country,” Shelby told VICE News.
When asked if he was worried if the Trump-McConnell fight could cost Republicans their shot at Senate control, Shelby paused.
“Not yet,” he said.