McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s public criticism of former President Trump over the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is revealing sharp divisions within the party as Republicans shift into the Biden era.

The Kentucky senator, who has said he remains undecided on the question of convicting Trump, is once again the most powerful Republican in Washington, and his maneuvering on the impeachment trial is reverberating through the GOP.

But his remarks about Trump are also sparking backlash from some of his colleagues and leading conservative media commentators just as he’s trying to navigate the Republican Party through a tumultuous transition.

“What we need right now is for Sen. McConnell to unequivocally say that the second impeachment of Donald Trump after he leaves office is not only unconstitutional, it is bad for the country, and stand up and fight back,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said during an interview with Fox News.

Graham credited McConnell for his work on judicial nominations and said he “really helped” Trump, but “I’m asking Republican leaders in the Senate to lead.”

When speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Graham stopped short of telling McConnell to dial back his rhetoric, saying instead that “most of us want to get the party back together.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) didn’t mention McConnell by name but warned during a Fox interview that if “Republicans, particularly Republican leadership, goes along with this impeachment, they’ll destroy the party.”

“And so I think it’s a huge mistake. I think it’s a hugely partisan exercise on the part of the Democrats. But for Republicans who go along with it, I think they’ll destroy our party,” he said.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) stressed that he didn’t have a problem with McConnell’s comments but added, “I’m hearing a lot of the same criticism from folks back home.”

“He’s not just smarter than me but he’s a lot wiser,” Cramer said Wednesday on Capitol Hill. But “there are a lot of people from our base that don’t like what he’s doing. I defend it — I do — even though I don’t share his view.”

The warning shots come on the heels of McConnell’s strongest criticism of Trump, when he used his first floor speech this week to respond to the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by saying Trump and others “provoked” the mob.

“The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people,” McConnell said.

Hours later, prime-time hosts on Fox News were lashing out at him, with some even suggesting that he should be removed from his leadership post.

“Establishment Republicans have no backbone, no principle, no courage, no vision,” Sean Hannity said during his show. “We need new leadership in the U.S. Senate.”

Tucker Carlson, in an interview with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), warned that Trump voters could see “foolish old frauds like Mitch McConnell railing on about how terrible Trump’s voters are.”

“Who is the person who is going to stand up and reassure these voters that they’re not going to be crushed?” Carlson asked.

McConnell hasn’t said whether he will vote to convict or acquit the former president in a historic second impeachment trial, which some senators predict will start next week, after the House voted along bipartisan lines to impeach Trump for “willfully inciting violence against the Government of the United States.”

But the GOP leader has told confidants he believes Trump committed impeachable offenses and that he views impeachment as a way for the party to move on from the last four years. Republicans entered 2017 riding high with their first unified government in more than a decade; now they are entering the Biden administration without control of the White House, House or Senate.

McConnell was reelected late last year to his role as Republican leader by acclimation, underscoring the grip he maintains on the GOP caucus. High-profile calls for him to be ousted are all but guaranteed to go nowhere in the Capitol.

McConnell is also listening carefully to the caucus as they plot their course on the trial. The GOP leader tries to avoid putting Republicans in tough political spots and is unlikely to get ahead of his caucus, with many undecided on how they will vote.

“I trust him, and he knows what’s doing,” Cramer said.

Still, McConnell is keeping his party guessing on what his ultimate endgame is for Trump’s second impeachment trial. The GOP leader, known for being tight-lipped and strategic, remained silent as calls for Trump to be impeached grew within House Democrats — a notable shift from early 2020, when Senate Republicans were vocal in the pledge to acquit the former president.

McConnell sent a letter last week to his caucus saying he would wait to hear the evidence presented at Trump’s trial before making up his mind. Members of his leadership team say they don’t expect him to try to sway GOP colleagues one way or the other when it comes to rendering a judgment on Trump.

“My expectation is if it comes to a trial, we’ll conduct it, hopefully, in a way that makes sure that there is due process, that both sides have the opportunity to make their case and provide evidence and then we’ll come to a conclusion. But he isn’t doing anything to prejudice that,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) of McConnell.

If McConnell were to vote to convict Trump, it would provide cover to other members of his caucus who are frustrated with the former president’s actions but worried about the potential political backlash.

Republicans are defending 20 seats in 2022, most of them in deeply red states where Trump remains popular. Trump, departing the White House on Wednesday morning, vowed that he would return to the political scene, though he provided few details on any next steps.

Trump left office with a tight grip on the GOP. A recent Axios-Ipsos poll found that 92 percent of self-identified Trump supporters want him to be the party’s 2024 presidential nominee, while 41 percent of respondents who identify as traditional Republicans said the same.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a moderate senator up for reelection next year, said the fact that McConnell is even leaving the door open to conviction frees up other Republican senators as they face a decision that could have far-reaching political consequences.

“Leader McConnell is one who doesn’t quickly advertise his position in certain things, and I think, I think it is a matter that each member needs to consider on their own,” Murkowski said. “And so him leaving that door open, I think, allows for individuals to look at this and base it on its own.”

Tags Donald Trump Impeachment John Thune Kevin Cramer Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Sean Hannity Senate trial Tom Cotton Tucker Carlson

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