How McConnell and the GOP let Trump down gently

How McConnell and the GOP let Trump down gentlyDecember 16, 2020

Before recognizing Joe Biden as America’s next president, Mitch McConnell was careful to make sure President Donald Trump was in the loop.

The Senate majority leader transmitted a message to the White House ahead of time that he would be giving remarks congratulating Biden on his win over Trump, according to a source familiar with the matter. What might have been a pro forma congratulatory speech had morphed into an exceedingly delicate issue in GOP politics: finally admitting that Biden won.

For five weeks, McConnell had declined to say that Biden defeated Trump, even joking about the “weekly ritual” he conducted with reporters questioning him on the election results. But after the Electoral College met on Monday to make Biden’s win official and a number of his members acknowledged to reporters that Trump lost, McConnell made his move.

“The Electoral College has spoken. So today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden,” McConnell said on the floor, after a lengthy defense of Trump’s accomplishments.

While McConnell may have recognized Biden’s victory, he wasn’t about to tell Trump to concede or stop his inflammatory rhetoric. Trump spent Tuesday continuing to attack the election results, falsely claiming there’s “tremendous evidence pouring in on voter fraud.”

“I don’t have any advice to give the president on this subject,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “I said this morning, for me and on the basis of the way the system works, the decision by the Electoral College yesterday was determinative.”

McConnell’s approach reflects the basic political reality confronting him. He will have to work closely with Biden over the next two years, particularly if he leads a slim GOP majority. But he also has to work with Trump over the next few weeks: to pass coronavirus relief and a government funding bill and to win two critical Georgia Senate run-off races. If they can hold at least one seat they will keep the majority, but they will need Trump’s energized supporters to do it.

“The whole thing has been a delicate balancing act to hold our base together for Georgia,” said a Republican senator.

McConnell also told reporters Tuesday he didn’t want to get ahead of himself when it comes to talking about confirming Biden’s Cabinet, concluding that “President Trump is going to be there until Jan. 20. We need to continue to work with him.”

By Tuesday afternoon, Biden had fielded calls from several GOP senators, while GOP leaders fought off attempts to challenge the election in Congress. McConnell and his lieutenants told Republican senators on a private caucus call not to join conservative House members like Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) in forcing a floor debate on whether Biden won or not on Jan. 6.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said senior members of his party were “explaining the futility of the situation.”

“There was encouragement on the phone for us to accept the result, as much as it’s not what we would have envisioned for the next four years,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “The better thing is to move on. I don’t know that’s how [Biden] feels, but he’s been through a lot of political races himself and I think he’ll rise to that occasion.”

Not long after McConnell called Biden the “president-elect,” Biden said he had spoken with McConnell to thank him and planned to meet with him soon. Since the election, Biden has been careful not to hector his old Senate colleague about recognizing his win. Instead, Biden waited patiently for McConnell, who was careful not to get ahead of the majority of his own members, even if the president still won’t concede.

A senior aide to the Biden transition characterized the president-elect’s patience as early evidence of his tactical approach toward congressional Republicans.

“If you look at what he did, he acted like a president-elect and he gave Republicans the space they needed, which is what a master legislator does,” the aide said.

The same aide said that to all the fellow Democrats doubting Biden’s ability to get stuff done with the Senate Republicans, “I’d say just watch us, just watch Joe Biden, because you’ve been wrong for the last two years.”

Though recognizing the results of a handy Electoral College win should be a formality, Trump’s efforts to subvert the election and near-constant attacks on Twitter had made it a hot-button issue within the GOP. Only after Biden crossed 270 in the Electoral College did the dam break.

Blunt, who is helping prepare the inauguration in his role as Senate Rules chair, told GOP leaders on Monday afternoon that he would need to recognize Biden’s win after the Electoral College result, according to two people familiar with the discussion. Blunt had been working with the Biden team on the inauguration and needed to make it official.

Others joined him on Monday evening, but McConnell waited until Tuesday. At first he mostly concentrated on praising Trump’s record, but ended with his admission that Biden had won. Once he did, he offered the rest of his conference a path forward in how to speak about Biden’s win.

“There were recounts. There were audits,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell confidant. “Not calling the election until those were completed was the right thing to do.”

For weeks, McConnell had supported Trump’s right to contest the election in the courts. But pro-Trump voices still criticized him on Tuesday. Mark Levin, a conservative radio host, accused him of being “AWOL” in Trump’s campaign to overturn the election: “Thanks for nothing, Mitch.” Charlie Kirk took exception with McConnell congratulating Biden and claimed it would depress turnout in Georgia.

But now most Republican senators feel empowered to acknowledge the inevitable presidential transition. In addition to speaking to McConnell, Biden also spoke to Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in recent days. Shortly after the election, he spoke to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

And Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who runs the Senate GOP’s campaign arm fighting to win in Georgia, recognized Biden’s win on Tuesday, too.

“It’s very important that each of us pledge to work with President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect [Kamala] Harris to ensure that we keep the American people safe and secure so that we get through this coronavirus period and emerge very strongly,” Young told reporters.

There’s even some political upside. After all, Republicans are now free to run against Democrats in Georgia as a firewall against Biden, after dancing around who would be the next president in their campaign rhetoric.

Alex Thompson contributed to this report.

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