In Stimulus Battle, Donald Trump Was No Match For Mitch McConnell, Who Shaped His Presidency

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) greets Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) after delivering his State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. In the final days of his presidency, Trump was no match for his enforcer. Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Donald Trump will be leaving Washington soon, but the most powerful Republican of the past four years isn’t going anywhere. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, says a former member of the White House staff who advised Trump throughout the first three turbulent years in office, “was sort of Trump’s ‘Washington whisperer.’ He offered quiet advice, and provided critical help on some very big stuff,” says the former staffer, who requested anonymity in order to talk candidly. ”You could call him kind of a co-president.”

Much of Trump’s legacy, when it comes to domestic policy at least, will be fleeting. Many of his signature initiatives—building a wall at the Mexican border, restricting immigration, and implementing broad economic deregulation—were enacted by executive order, and much of it will be swept aside by his successor. The transformative parts of Trump’s domestic record are largely McConnell’s work. The Senate majority leader took the political neophyte under his wing when he arrived in Washington four years ago, played a central role in his most important achievements, and is now at odds with Trump in his final days in office.

The Senate majority leader’s achievements include the appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices—made possible before the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch by the majority leader’s implementation of the so called “nuclear option,” the elimination of the 60-vote requirement to end a filibuster for nominees to the high court. It also includes the appointment of 224 federal judges nationwide. (Since 1976 only Ronald Reagan, who served two terms, appointed more.) McConnell got the 2017 tax bill passed narrowly in the Senate, which Trump supporters credit with powering a strong economy that, they believe, would have led to his re-election were it not for the Covid-19 pandemic. And he agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to bring Trump’s criminal justice reform bill to a vote in late 2017, where it passed overwhelmingly. McConnell’s only major failure came when the late Arizona Senator John McCain scuttled a bill that would have repealed Obamacare, a central Trump campaign promise in 2016.

The last big battle of Trump’s term, over the stimulus bill this week, highlighted the extent to which the president was no match for his own enforcer. Trump was already angry with McConnell before they clashed over the additional $1,400 in relief which Trump suddenly supported on December 22. A week earlier, McConnell had publicly congratulated Joe Biden on winning the presidency. That, White House aides and Trump friends say, angered the president; he saw it as an act of “disloyalty”—the cardinal sin in Trump world.

When Trump said he favored $2000 direct payments to Americans for Covid-19 relief, McConnell was taken aback, two Senate aides say. Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, had worked out a plan with both Houses of Congress that included a $600 payment. It was part of a $900 billion spending package which Trump signed into law on December 27. Gleeful Democrats in both the House and the Senate immediately said they backed the president. Minority leader Chuck Schumer called for a unanimous vote of approval for $2,000 payments in the Senate, after the House voted in favor. This put McConnell in a bind: his Republican Senate caucus contains members who are among the last in Washington to even pretend they care about budget deficits and fiscal sobriety. John Cornyn of Texas and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania both publicly voiced their dismay, even as others said they were for the additional payments.

That included David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Republican Senators in the critical January 5th Georgia runoff that will determine who controls the Senate going forward. Polls show both races to be extremely tight. One Georgia pollster with a reputation for accuracy, Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group, released a survey on December 27 that unnerved many Republicans: it had both GOP candidates trailing slightly. The problem for Perdue and Loeffler is that each earlier this year had expressed skepticism about direct Covid-relief payments to virtually all taxpayers. Their sudden, Trump-driven change of heart allowed their Democratic opponents to denounce their “hypocrisy.”

The entire episode, says a senior official at the Republican National Committee who requested anonymity to speak frankly, gave McConnell heartburn. ”The Majority Leader may usually like to focus on the ”long game,’ as he likes to put it, but for him right now that game extends exactly one week, to the January 5 run-offs.” Should the GOP lose both Georgia seats, McConnell will be the minority leader for at least two years, a hugely frustrating position for someone who is widely viewed as a masterful tactician and who relishes his role as one of Washington’s most powerful people.

But McConnell was not going to betray his members who had backed the $600 checks, whether that angered Trump or not. He blocked Schumer’s call for a straight up-or-down vote, and on Wednesday introduced a bill that Democrats said was intended to block the additional payments: it included, in addition to the additional Covid relief, two other provisions, both of which are Trump favorites: a repeal of the liability protection extended to social media companies like Facebook and Twitter (who Trump and many conservatives believe undermined his election by censoring news about the investigation into Hunter Biden‘s foreign business dealings), and the formation of a commission looking into voter fraud. Democrats oppose both and want just a straight up-or-down vote on the additional $1,400 in Covid relief.

Late Wednesday afternoon, McConnell played hardball. “Here’s the deal: The Senate is not going to split apart the three issues that President Trump linked together just because Democrats are afraid to address two of them,” he said. That meant that the current Congress will not take up the bill. The next Congress will be sworn in on Sunday, January 3rd. McConnell turned his attention to what will be the current Senate’s final act: a vote to override the president’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act—another snub of Trump, and another sign of who’s boss.

McConnell, like the rest of his Senate colleagues, will then be focused on the January 5 Georgia runoffs. Just one GOP victory and he will remain majority leader, albeit by the narrowest of margins. That means he will be almost as influential in affecting what a Biden administration can get done legislatively, and which judges it can appoint, as he has been during the Trump years. He won’t be a “co-president,” but he will remain by far the most powerful Republican in town.