Politics / January 26, 2024

Mitch McConnell Caves In to Donald Trump Yet Again

A potential border deal may fall through, as the Senate minority leader scrambles to make concessions to his party’s putative nominee.

Chris Lehmann
Mitch McConnell
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, speaks during a press conference after Republican senators met during a policy luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

With the House of Representatives spiraling off into ever more baroque forms of irrelevance, political observers desperate to detect a pulse of serious policy activity in our body politic have lately fixated on the Senate. That body, which has long garlanded its brand of prestigious influence-peddling with the laughable self-description of “world’s greatest deliberative body,” has spent the past several weeks hammering together a framework for a supplementary spending deal that ties border security crackdowns to more than $100 billion in military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. The original thinking behind this strategy was to use aid to Ukraine in particular as leverage to extort the most draconian set of border policies the GOP minority could get. Never mind that the measures in play—proposals to restrict asylum criteria and expand detention protocols, while throttling the White House’s parole initiatives—would do nothing to substantially reduce the volume of immigrants entering the United States, legally or otherwise. Never mind, as well, that the Biden administration is already presiding over a body of harsh border restrictions—which renders the whole spectacle of right-wing posturing over tougher border policies a glorified form of performance art. No, the GOP’s electoral base can be reliably marshaled behind xenophobic immigration rhetoric, so lead Republican Senate strategists are determined to present their voters with the harshest border agreement on offer. That way, congressional Republicans, who have accomplished nearly nothing beyond ideological fratricide during the 118th Congress, can demonstrate their vigilante bona fides to the MAGA faithful this November.

All of which leads us, inevitably and regrettably, to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. In addition to being one of the most procedurally fluent and donor-osculating members of Congress, McConnell has, over his long, bottom-feeding career, perfected the raw transactional exercise of power for its own sake as the sole objective of all Senate activity. He was the man who infamously blockaded President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court by citing a fabricated Senate tradition of refraining from holding high court nomination hearings too close to a presidential election. (Needless to say, he slithered seamlessly out of that fanciful notion when it came time to railroad Amy Coney Barrett onto the court, and secure the 6-3 right-wing majority currently trashing whatever remains of America’s formal democracy.)

When the lead Republican negotiators on the border deal, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, emerged last week with a punishing set of concessions from their Democratic counterparts, McConnell was initially well pleased, and set about trying to whip 20 votes in support of the measure, which has been parked in the Senate Appropriations Committee until the numbers for a successful floor vote materialize. Other prominent GOP senators, such as minority whip James Thune and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, hailed the deal as a historic win. “One of the things that I keep reminding my members is if we had a 100% Republican government—president, House, Senate—we probably would not be able to get a single Democratic vote to pass what Sen. Lankford and the administration are trying to get together,” McConnell told reporters. “So this is a unique opportunity to accomplish something in divided government.”

Well, that was last week. Since then, MAGA lawmakers have been up in arms over the accord, claiming that it sells out still more hard-line border priorities while giving the Biden White House its own election-year wins, not only on border politics, but also on Ukraine funding—a longtime source of MAGA suspicion and hostility. The whole notion of brokering a compromise in divided government—even one that tilts so cravenly to right-wing border demagogy as this one does–is simply anathema to the true-believing MAGA nation.

That was made unmistakably clear when MAGA lord and likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump weighed in on the negotiations on his Truth Social tantrum-delivery system, thusly:

I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people, many from parts unknown, into our once great, but soon to be great again, Country! Also, I have no doubt that our wonderful Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, will only make a deal that is PERFECT ON THE BORDER. Remember, without Strong Borders and Honest Elections, we don’t have a Country!!!

The right-wing mediasphere locked promptly into gear. “Mitch McConnell Lobbies Republican Senators to Pass Secret Migration Bill,” one typical high-paranoid headline blared on Breitbart News. And with the stunning lack of self-awareness of the truly unprincipled, McConnell reversed course on the deal as if it were another sainted Senate tradition he’d made up on the fly. In a Wednesday meeting of the GOP Senate conference, McConnell reportedly told his flock, “When we started this, the border united us and Ukraine divided us,” but now “the politics on this have changed.” With Trump now secure in place as “the nominee,” McConnell went on to note, “We don’t want to do anything to undermine him…. We’re in a quandary.” (On Thursday, McConnell sought to walk back these comments, and underline his commitment to a border deal.)

But one thing the past four decades of shabby capitulations on Capitol Hill have taught us is that when Mitch McConnell finds himself in a quandary, moral squalor is in the offing. There is indeed something especially rich about Trump’s serving as the efficient cause of this latest McConnell meltdown, since the last major quandary besieging the hired-gun lawmaker came in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. McConnell, like his House counterpart Kevin McCarthy, was reportedly distressed by the violent and delusional coup attempt—but, also like the equally transactional and invertebrate House leader, he instructed his conference members to vote their consciences at Trump’s Senate trial—after having spent a good third of a century massaging his conference’s collective conscience into the moral equivalent of Silly Putty. And sure enough, as he saw his members cave obligingly MAGAward, the great tribune of high-minded deliberation wound up adding his own vote to the GOP majority voting to acquit the aspiring dictator at the head of their party.

So there’s a certain karmic elegance to a failed coup-plotting former president smiting down the one measurable legislative breakthrough from McConnell’s chamber with the blunt instrument of a civilian Truth Social account. Mitch McConnell may have compiled an extensive résumé of legislating (and advising-and-consenting) purely for power’s sake, but compared to the heavy breathing tirades of Maximum Leader Trump, he’s merely a piker. But no matter: As dissident members of his conference deride the demagogic implications of McConnell’s obsequious performance, the Senate minority leader is no doubt off somewhere counting donor cash and dreaming of the next major event hymning the glories of sober and judicious leadership at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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