As 2019 dawns, even more attention will turn to the man who holds Donald Trump’s political fate in his hands. But no, I don’t mean Robert Mueller.
Obviously, Mueller is an important figure. Perhaps soon, he will send his report up to the Justice Department. Though the department has no legal obligation to make it public, it seems close to impossible to me that a report of such clear first-order public concern can be kept under wraps. So one way or the other I expect we’ll know what he's found.
Beyond that, he may issue more indictments. Not just of Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi, but of the president’s family members. Maybe even the president himself, although that seems unlikely (but not impossible, as some insist). I try to stay away from predictions these days, but given that we know that Mueller has hours of testimony from Michael Cohen, presumably hours more from longtime Trump Organization bagman Allen Weisselberg, and Trump’s tax returns, I’d expect some seriously interesting revelations.
But Mueller holds no power beyond that. He can give us evidence; but he can’t direct what happens as a result of that evidence entering the public sphere.
That power rests with one man. The fate of this presidency, whether we like it or not, is in the hands of Mitch McConnell.
Why do I say this? Because the question of whether Trump finishes his term and goes on to seek reelection with his party’s assent will be decided by the Senate. And when I say “the Senate,” I mean McConnell, since on a matter like this the GOP Senate majority will do as he says.
If the House of Representatives does at some point move to impeach Trump, the articles passed there will go to the Senate. That Senate will have 53 Republicans, meaning that even if all 47 Democrats (including here Bernie Sanders and Angus King) vote to convict, 20 Republicans will have to agree.
To be blunt, that is an utter impossibility—unless McConnell tells them Trump needs to go, at which point it becomes a virtual certainty. And even if the House doesn't impeach, McConnell's verdict on Trump will likely be dispositive within the party.
McConnell has been a United States senator for coming up on 34 years and in all that time has displayed no visible moral compass of any kind. Most of these guys, however astringent their politics, cultivate a matter or two over the course of their careers that can vaguely be called “humanitarian” and that give their obituary writers and funeral orators something to lead with. Orrin Hatch helped deliver children’s health care.
Not McConnell. In 2017, as the Senate was drafting up legislation to kill Obamacare and take health coverage away from 20 million, it was reported that McConnell refused to meet with representatives of the March of Dimes, even though it was the March of Dimes that paid for treatment of his own polio in 1944 when he was 2 years old.
He came to Washington long ago to work for Kentucky Republican John Sherman Cooper, one of the great consensus-building senators of his era. But in his own career, McConnell has shown interest in one issue and one issue only: gaining, keeping, and expanding the power of the Republican Party.
Hence his obsession with fighting tooth-and-nail every effort at campaign-finance reform. McConnell’s perfect world is one in which the Kochs and Adelsons and a few others can just buy Congress. And hence his only other real legislative interest, judges, because he wants judges at every level who will affirm his views on campaign finance.
Everything else, feh. From Iran to Yemen to the Medicare Trust Fund to the policy governing fish hatcheries, he will take whatever position he thinks will protect his party’s majority.
And Trump falls under this everything-else rubric. Up to now, McConnell’s position on Trump has been totally amoral and mercenary. In June 2016, he said of Trump: “For all of his obvious shortcomings, Donald Trump is certainly a different direction, and I think if he is in the White House he’ll have to respond to the right-of-center world which elected him, and the things that we believe in. So I’m comfortable supporting him.” In other words, I don’t care about his “shortcomings”; we can get what we need out of the guy, and that’s what I care about.
And then, in October 2016, you will remember—I hope you remember, because it handed the election to Trump as surely as anything James Comey did that month—he sabotaged President Obama’s plan to go public with the announcement that our intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia was interfering in the election. Obama wanted a public, bipartisan statement from congressional leaders condemning Russia.
McConnell said he wouldn’t sign such a statement. Without a bipartisan statement, as McConnell well knew, what came out would be dismissible as Democratic carping, and he would surely be among those doing the dismissing. It’s hard to think of a clearer case of someone putting party before country—angling to suppress intelligence findings that were of obvious interest to the voters because he knew letting them be made public would hurt his candidate.
Now, as we think forward to next year, McConnell still seems to be strongly pro-Trump. He did issue a statement critical of the Jim Mattis firing. That was maybe a little tea leaf. But overall he doesn’t sound like he’s ready to vacate the amen corner anytime soon. Trump tweeted on the evening of Dec. 23: “Mitch McConnell just told a group of people, and me, that he has been in the U.S. Senate for 32 years and the last two have been by far the best & most productive of his career. Tax & Regulation Cuts, VA Choice, Farm Bill, Criminal Justice Reform, Judgeships & much more. Great!”
We are a long, long, long way from McConnell deciding that Trump is more liability to his Senate majority than asset. It’s hard today to imagine what chain of events would make McConnell decide that.
All I’m saying is that as you think about what to look for in 2019, that’s the Rosetta Stone you want to look for: signs that McConnell may be deciding Trump has become a liability. Interestingly, McConnell is up for reelection in 2020, assuming he runs again, so the question of Trump’s impact on Senate candidates will be personal for him.
If McConnell stays with Trump, Republicans, senatorial and otherwise, won’t buck him. But if he decides Trump is bringing the party down, Trump’s support will collapse fast. It’s not a very comforting thought, that the fate of the republic is in Mitch McConnell’s hands. On the other hand, if the day does come when he decides Trump has to go, we can be sure that McConnell will execute the deed as mercilessly as he does everything else.