Skip to content
Et Tu, Mitch?
Go to my account

Et Tu, Mitch?

McConnell surrenders to Trump. Or does he?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to his office from the Senate floor during votes on the continuing resolution to keep the government funded on Thursday, January 18, 2024. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

This era in politics is unusually selfish, spiteful, and stupid, which tempts one to assume that previous eras weren’t selfish, spiteful, and stupid. But that’s not true, of course: Placing one’s electoral interests above the good of the country isn’t a problem that originated in 2016 with Donald Trump.

In 2011, for example, Democrats and Republicans came surprisingly close to a grand bargain that would have traded entitlement reform and spending cuts for tax hikes. Why the deal fell apart remains disputed, but the looming 2012 campaign was surely a factor. Barack Obama feared alienating liberals by tinkering with the social safety net; John Boehner feared a grassroots Tea Party revolt over taxes—or, really, for compromising with Obama on anything.

What was best for America long-term wasn’t best for the two parties’ electoral fortunes short-term, so the former yielded to the latter. That’s essentially the whole history of our decades-long descent into fiscal insanity in one sentence, no?

It didn’t start with Trump, and it won’t end with him once he’s gone.

Still, watching meaningful bipartisan compromises fall apart under electoral pressure feels different in this era because of the freakish extent to which Trump prioritizes his personal interests over the country’s interests. This is a guy who once got impeached for withholding military aid from an ally under fire because he wanted that ally to pony up dirt on his political opponent first. Then he got impeached again because he preferred to tear the country apart by attempting a coup over admitting that he’d lost a popularity contest fair and square.

There’s not a single selfless, public-minded cell in his considerable corpus. Chris Christie had many criticisms of Trump on the trail this year, but when it came time to withdraw from the race, he summarized his objections to Trump this way: “If you put him back behind the desk in the Oval Office, and the choice comes and the decision is needed to be made as to whether he puts himself first or he puts you first, how much more evidence do you need that he will pick himself?”

That was true of Trump the president, and it’s no less true of Trump the candidate.

It’s also true to the spirit of his nationalist message. For all of their alleged hyper-patriotism, no one speaks more contemptuously of America than nationalists do when they’re out of power. To hear them tell it, literally everything about the country is in catastrophic decline; the only solution, coincidentally, is to elect a nationalist savior who’s capable of fixing every problem that bedevils us—provided that, once in office, he’s allowed to “cross the line” as necessary.

“Trump has been very clear all along that he wants conditions in the country to be as horrible as possible in every way when he is out of power,” Jonathan Chait wrote on Thursday, astutely. Approaching politics with an attitude of “the worse, the better” is another thing that didn’t originate with Trump, but any political faction that espouses it is destined to be driven by radical lunatics willing to go much further in wielding power than garden-variety officials like Barack Obama or John Boehner would.

On that note, let’s talk about immigration.

For weeks, senators from both parties have been negotiating a deal on border security. The chief Republican negotiator isn’t from the Susan Collins/Lisa Murkowski RINO wing of the conference, either. It’s James Lankford of Oklahoma, whose conservative bona fides aren’t (for the moment) in doubt.

The terms remain in flux, but NBC News described them this way in a story published last week: “The emerging Senate package is expected to raise the bar for asylum-seekers to come to the U.S., grant additional powers to remove migrants to control the border, and restrict the use of parole to admit certain migrants as they await processing for their cases.”

Notably, and unusually for proposed immigration compromises, there’s nothing in the bargain that would grant a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants residing in the United States. It’s a security-first package, prioritizing Republican concerns. Also notably, the Democratic “ask” in exchange for passing it is GOP votes for another round of aid to Ukraine—something that many conservative hawks already support.

In other words, there’s something for every right-wing faction in this deal. Even if you’re a populist who opposes the Ukraine component, you get the satisfaction of knowing that something is finally being done to try to ease the crush of human traffic at the border. In this instance, nationalists aren’t blowing smoke when they describe that as a catastrophe. It’s an urgent national crisis, just as the war in Ukraine is an urgent international crisis. And solving urgent crises is what Congress is supposed to be for.

Republicans won’t get everything they want on immigration from the deal, but that’s life in a democracy when government is divided between the parties. You take what you can get to mitigate a problem incrementally, then aim for a good outcome in the next election that’ll let you build on those reforms in the manner your constituents prefer.

It’s all straightforward … except that Trump, the border hawk of all border hawks, has reportedly been phoning Republican senators urging them to tank the deal.

He’s not doing that because it’s a bad bill that couldn’t possibly work to reduce migrants’ ability to game the asylum system, mind you. Just the opposite: It could work—and if it does, the enormous political liability Joe Biden has right now on the issue of immigration might ease before Election Day. “Trump wants them to kill it because he doesn’t want Biden to have a victory,” one source close to the negotiations bluntly told HuffPost. A senior GOP aide confirmed that to Politico: “It’s very clear that a large group of Republicans in the Senate and the House no longer want to do border security. … Trump wouldn’t have his issue to run on. That’s what’s going on here: They don’t want to give up that issue.”

Once again, as ever, Trump is placing his personal interests over America’s. But this time, he’s doing so by trying to prolong what he and his fans claim to regard as an ongoing disaster so momentous that it poses an existential threat to the country. The worse, the better—even at the border.

None of this is surprising. What’s surprising is that Mitch McConnell, the closest thing to a powerful enemy that Trump has left in the Republican Party, might bow to his wishes by rallying his conference against the bill.

McConnell has spent three years ignoring his nemesis to the utmost extent, refusing to engage when Trump insulted him or his wife (the latter in racial terms) while partnering with Joe Biden on major pieces of legislation like the 2021 infrastructure bill and the Electoral Count Reform Act. His age and declining health mean it’s unlikely he’ll serve in the Senate once his current term ends in 2026. And it must have troubled his mind lately that Trump’s revolting third nomination for president would have been impossible had McConnell rallied Republicans to disqualify him at his Senate trial following January 6.

In other words, McConnell has good reason to defy Trump, and few reasons not to. Especially as he watches, doubtless with dismay, as his fellow Reaganites in the party rapidly go extinct.

So what was he doing at a meeting of Senate Republicans on Wednesday, seemingly nudging them to abandon Lankford’s immigration deal? Punchbowl News reports:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a private meeting of Senate Republicans Wednesday afternoon that the politics of the border has flipped for his party and cast doubt on linking immigration policy with new aid for Ukraine, according to multiple sources present.

“The politics on this have changed,” McConnell then told his GOP colleagues.

McConnell referred to Trump as “the nominee” and noted the former president wants to run his 2024 campaign centered on immigration. And the GOP leader said, “We don’t want to do anything to undermine him.”

“We’re in a quandary,” McConnell added.

This is normally the point where a writer puts on his “omniscient pundit” hat and purports to decipher McConnell’s thinking. But I must confess, I find it inscrutable.

That’s partly because he’s a formidable strategist, capable of playing so-called three-dimensional chess while normies like me struggle to see the board. And partly it’s because it’s not clear how accurate Punchbowl’s reporting is: GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, who supports the deal, dismissed allegations that McConnell wants to defer to Trump as “parallel universe sh-t” and told reporters he wished he had a transcript of yesterday’s Senate Republican meeting to prove it.

McConnell himself said Thursday that talks between the two parties on immigration are continuing. What is he up to?

I can argue this any which way, from McConnell as a crafty saboteur who’s looking to damage Trump’s chances at reelection to McConnell as a partisan hack whose atavistic impulse to empower the GOP at all costs won’t be restrained even by the terrible prospect of a second Trump presidency.

The “crafty saboteur” read on what he’s doing is simple. If the immigration deal falls apart at Trump’s behest, Biden and the Democrats can spend the rest of the year blaming Trump himself for the ongoing border crisis. And Mitch knows it.

“We tried to fix it!” the president will say. “But Trump didn’t want it fixed. Ask Mitch McConnell and his members. They’ll tell you.”

They will indeed tell you.

McConnell could get to have his cake and eat it too, in fact. He could let it be known publicly that Trump is trying to spoil an immigration deal, which hurts Trump politically, while quietly encouraging a critical mass of the Senate GOP to cross the aisle and join Democrats in passing whatever bill emerges from Lankford’s negotiations. Per Fox News, there may be as many as 20 Republicans prepared to vote yes.

Imagine Trump having to swallow all of the bad press from trying to sabotage the border negotiations and then having his party turn around and hand Biden a major political victory anyway, all thanks to Mitch.

It’s possible. But that theory probably gives too much credit to a guy who was already vowing to support Trump again as the party’s nominee mere weeks after the insurrection in 2021. And if McConnell really wants to reduce Biden’s share of blame for the border, he should support Lankford’s deal, no? The more Senate Republicans buy into it, the more the president gets to argue during the campaign that any immigration failures going forward are bipartisan.

Another theory, then: McConnell is simply being a pragmatist. Perhaps, by expressing reservations about the bill, he’s trying to bid Democrats up and strengthen Lankford’s leverage in talks.

Or, more pragmatically, perhaps he’s signaling his sincere belief that it’s silly to support a bill that’s doomed in the House.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has also been in touch with Trump about border negotiations, unsurprisingly, and has declared that his conference will accept nothing less from the Senate than a bill that enacts the entire Republican immigration wish list. That sort of bill is impossible in a divided Congress, as Johnson knows; the point of making that demand isn’t to put pressure on Democrats, it’s to provide a pretext up front for House Republicans to help Trump politically by blocking whatever deal comes out of the upper chamber.

As much as you or I might wish that there are a handful of moderate members in Johnson’s conference willing to ignore the leadership and partner with Democrats in supporting a compromise, Trump’s easy victories in Iowa and New Hampshire mean there probably aren’t. Centrist House Republicans have already begun to fall in line behind him, knowing the risk they’ll face in their next primary if they don’t.Angering Trump by joining Hakeem Jeffries on a border-security deal would be political suicide for them, in the unlikely event Johnson even allowed the bill to come to the floor. They won’t do it.

So why would Mitch McConnell bother rallying his own members behind a deal? If it’s a nonstarter in the House, all he’ll achieve by doing so is antagonizing Trump, antagonizing Johnson, antagonizing Trump loyalists in both chambers of Congress, and putting pro-deal Republicans at dire risk in their next elections. A party civil war might be worth fighting for a good bill that will eventually become law. It’s strange to fight one over a bill that won’t.

There’s a third possibility, though, which we’ll call the “McConnell is a partisan hack” theory. Is it really so surprising that a political survivor as dogged as him would respond to Trump completing his takeover of the Republican Party by shrugging and rolling with it?

McConnell joined the Senate a few weeks before Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. He’s held on as conservatism evolved over two different Bush presidencies, lost influence during a Trump administration, and finally dwindled to a rump minority in a party that serves no cause greater than empowering its leader. The romantic thing for a Reaganite to do at this point is to renounce a movement that’s been so corrupted that it practically oozes sleaze and authoritarian malice and to work against its victory this fall.

But not all, or even most, Reaganites are willing. Look at Newt Gingrich, who continues to babble faithfully in Trump’s defense for the glory of nothing more meaningful than occasional segments on Fox News. Millions upon millions of “conservative” voters have spent the past eight years rationalizing support for Trump on partisan grounds and will do so again this fall. Why should the Senate minority leader be different?

It’s not hard to imagine Mitch McConnell, one of the most consequential Republicans of the past century, concluding that he should stick with the GOP to the bitter end, right or wrong. If the party, now personified by Donald Trump, thinks a border deal would hurt the cause of returning Republicans to power, then Mitch’s duty as a partisan is not to abet that deal.

Remember that we’re talking about a guy who held open a vacancy on the Supreme Court for months during a presidential campaign in hopes that doing so would get Trump elected. A few years later, the same guy passed on a chance to disqualify Trump from office because the voters of his party would have been temporarily angry about it. If Donald Trump ends up getting reelected, it’ll be no exaggeration to say that he owes both of his terms in office to the direct intervention of Mitch McConnell.

How’s that for a partisan legacy? Capitulating to Trump’s wishes on a border deal is peanuts by comparison.

If nothing else, McConnell playing nice with the presumptive nominee during this year’s campaign might reduce the risk of Trump doing something spiteful and self-defeating in a fit of pique that sabotages the GOP’s chances of retaking the Senate. He did that once before, you may recall, and as we’ve been reminded in the past 24 hours, he’s awfully stupid when he’s angry. If your ambition in life is to be majority leader of the Senate until the second coming, you might reasonably conclude that not making him angry in this case is the prudent play.

Because I feel guilty about not giving you a clear thesis on what McConnell is up to, let me atone in closing by making three predictions.

One: There will be no border-security deal, or any other kind of immigration deal, during a second Trump presidency. The bargain Lankford is working on is the best chance hawks will have for years to put something on the books. Even if Republicans were to offer the same terms in 2025, Trump’s return to power will be so ferociously polarizing that Democrats will have no political room to compromise. Their base will demand that all GOP initiatives be opposed on principle, root and branch. Notably, McConnell and his conference understand this.

Two: If McConnell really is hoping to hang on and become majority leader again in 2025, his experience in that role will be relentlessly miserable and probably legacy-ruining. His dream may be to spend his golden years rubber-stamping a new raft of conservative judicial nominees, but his reality will be managing one Trump-caused crisis after another. If the president pulls out of NATO, what does the Senate do? If the president appoints a bunch of unqualified hacks as “acting” Cabinet secretaries, ignoring constitutional requirements about advice and consent, what does the Senate do? If the president chooses once again to “cross the line” legally in executing his duties, what does the Senate do?

McConnell will either capitulate in all of these matters, affirming the transformation of Reagan Republicans into the lowest of Trump-enabling chumps, or he’ll resist and become a figure of even more intense hatred within his party than he is now. And that hatred is already plenty intense.

Three: This will not be the last time during this campaign that we’ll learn Trump has been working the phones to try to sabotage a policy victory for Biden. There’s no reason that an ethos of “the worse, the better” should be limited to a modest deal on immigration simmering in the Senate.

At some point, he’ll reach out to a foreign leader with whom he’s chummy from his time in office and try to undermine a U.S. diplomatic initiative that risks undermining his election chances. What that’ll look like is anyone’s guess. Maybe the White House will get close on a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, causing Trump to dial up Mohammed bin Salman and complain. Maybe there’ll be an incident with North Korea, leading Trump to remind his “lover” Kim Jong Un that things will be better for him in a second MAGA term and urging him not to cooperate with Biden.

The thought of a presidential candidate secretly undermining his own country’s diplomacy for electoral advantage is so scandalous as to have been unthinkable in an earlier age, but certainly not in this one. There is no bottom to any of this; character is destiny. Trying to tank the immigration bill is only the beginning.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.