It was a late-night February 13th, just minutes after Trump was acquitted on his second impeachment, when a senior Senator rose from his seat and went on a excoriating attack at the former president’s role on the attack on the capitol on January 6th “There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day”, the Senator said.
From the speech alone you would have been remised if you thought those were the words of a Senator who voted to convict Trump, maybe Schumer or Romney, you would be wrong. Those were the words of the highest-ranking Republican in Washington, DC, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who just moments ago had voted against conviction and now was laying complete political responsibility or the abhorrent events of January at the feet of the former president.
McConnell shielded his decision to acquit on the grounds of constitutionality, saying any punishment would be the responsibility of the courts now that Trump was a private citizen. However, his statements on the floor of the Senate are a great illustration of the profound divide consuming the GOP, a conflict about the future of the party. Or, to be more candid, a fight about the future role that Trump must have in the direction of the party.
Trump versus McConnell: from mistrust to cooperation to war
Much has been said about the relationship between Trump and the Republican establishment in Washington DC. In fact, I am pretty sure that entire books have been written about it. However, nothing summarizes that association as the personal ups and downs of the Trump-McConnell partnership, which went from mistrust to cooperation and acceptance and then to open warfare.
Let us remember that before both of them worked together to pass a historic tax cut, appoint three Supreme court justices and a record number of federal judges, both politicians were highly skeptical of each other. It was McConnell who in June 2016 condemned many of the inflammatory claims made by then presumptive nominee Trump as “outrageous and inappropriate” and Trump was very upset about the Senate’s initial failure to repeal Obamacare, telling McConnell to “get back to work” in a flurry of tweets in August 2017.
Nevertheless, as the Trump administration went on, both leaders coordinated their efforts and managed a series of policies (like the touted tax cuts and the renegotiated NAFTA agreement) which were praised by both establishment and base conservatives. Furthermore, McConnell saw Trump as a useful ally in pursuing one of his main goals since he began public service almost forty years ago: nominating and confirming federal judges, a feat that McConnell didn’t miss a chance to highlight.
This all changed during the last couple of months of the Trump presidency. At first, McConnell played it safe and stayed relatively quiet about the former President’s legal challenges aimed at overturning the results of the 2020 election, arguing that the President was ‘within his rights.”
However, as the legal challenges floundered, McConnell started to change its rhetoric. He immediately recognized Biden’s victory after the electoral college casted their votes in December and was very opposed to the attempts to defy the certification process on January 6th, something that enraged Trump who called him a “weak and ineffective RINO (Republican in name only)”. After the assault on the Capitol the distance was even starker with McConnell disowning Trump saying that the president “fed lies” to the mob and that he “provoked” the attack. The golden days of the Trump/McConnell pact were over.
Even if the experienced senate leader did not provide the “coup de grace” to Trump’s political future by stalling and voting against the second impeachment trial —McConnell has clearly drawn the battle lines—, he wants to regain the majority in the senate and he considers Trump to be a hindrance to that goal, hence, he does not want the GOP to fully transform into the Trump Party.
Trump did not wait too long to respond, releasing a statement where he berated the Senate Minority Leader where he says that McConnell a “dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack” and that he “will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country”. With the threat of conviction in the Senate over, we can expect the President to issue more of these type of statements in the following years. The total war for the soul of the GOP has begun.
Trump versus the Establishment: Round 2?
In 2016, Trump fought the Establishment and won. Five years later, after losing an election and leaving office amid the chaos of January 6th, he faces some similarities to the 2016 run. Some members of the Establishment are eager to turn the page on the Trump era, a mix of political benefit (some want to be the 2024 nominee), and sincere disgust at the assault on the Capitol.
The GOP is in a dilemma: Trump remains a fairly popular figure within the party base and his rhetoric tapped the anguish and concerns of millions of Americans and turned them into votes, however, that same persona was also considered too toxic for most voters (especially in the suburbs) and it can make the road to regain control in DC a steep one.
McConnell has a delicate role to play. If he decides to lean too much against Trump or Trumpish primary candidates he might enrage the base, putting in danger the GOP chances to win the general election or even his own position within the party elite. On the other hand, if he does not act, then it is very likely that the former president will finalize the takeover of the party he started in 2016. As he said in an interview to The Wall Street Journal “that may or may not involve trying to affect the outcome of the primaries.”
Trump, on the other hand, faces some difficulties on his own: the possibility of judicial troubles, the permanent ban he has suffered in all major social media sites, and a presidential legacy tarnished by his role in the January crisis. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to think that the President does not have a chance to become the 2024 nominee, as some Senators have suggested, he still is very popular within the base and has defeated the establishment before. If the establishment’s plan is that Trump will go away on his own, well, they’ve not learn anything over the last four years.
The stage is set for a new battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Let us be clear, Trump has left an irreversible mark in the party, the question now is if the GOP will continue the path towards the more toxic and, frankly, irresponsible rhetoric that Trump displayed over the last months or if they will decide to take the good that Trump has made while rejecting the bad. The ultimate decision, as always, will be in the hands of the American voter.