Republished with permission from Steve Schmidt
Jonathan Martin, Politico’s senior political columnist and politics bureau chief, has written a long profile of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It depicts the 82- year-old as declining, decrepit and searching for encomiums at the end of his public life.
The story is a fascinating portraiture of both the man and official Washington, DC, at the hinge where politics and media connect. This is the type of story by the type of reporter that would have taken up a lot of time and attention from the sprawling political enterprise known as “McConnell World” inside the Beltway.
The decision to have McConnell sit down with Martin is the senator’s response to his 20 seconds of silence caught on camera in front of the nation. Of course, nothing that happened in that moment was unfamiliar or surprising to McConnell’s colleagues, or the media, who routinely help America’s most powerful politicians like McConnell or Diane Feinstein hide their decrepitude from the eyes of the American people.
According to the story, conversations swirl around McConnell who sits non-responsively, unable to hear, while his caucus members carry on around him. One interesting revelation from it is the degree of cooperation being given the AP’s Michael Tackett with 40 years’ worth of his Senate files by aides. They are trying to cement the legacy and historic reputation of the senior senator from Kentucky—as if it is something that isn’t already set in stone.
Another interesting aspect of McConnell present in the story is the degree to which he seems reliant on his wife Elaine Chao, a former Trump administration cabinet secretary, to function as a caregiver. In his first public appearance since he froze, Martin describes the scene as follows:
Yet his voice was diminished, he mostly read his lines without looking up and his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, had to help him up from his chair each time he stood.
Always protective of McConnell, Chao has become forceful this year, keeping details of his condition private and acting as his aide-de-camp on the road. She scanned the stage floor at Fancy Farm to detect the stray sandbag, held up his speech folder to cover her lips in the fashion of an NFL coach while speaking loudly to McConnell as they sat before his remarks and rarely left his side throughout the day.
Yet the purpose of the story and the hopes of Team McConnell are not constructed around his decline, but rather what they hope to portray as a final stand against Donald Trump. The audacity of revisionism is what the Martin piece is really about. It seeks to frame an appeaser as a fighter when the sad truth is that McConnell’s legacy is simple to distill: he helped break the US Senate as an institution, turning it into a totem of public contempt and dysfunction. He also was a serial appeaser of an extremist movement that he refused to confront, condemn or take seriously. He sought to ride the proverbial tiger and wound up inside, swallowed whole.
When Trump incited an attack against the peaceful transition of presidential power and launched a coup to destroy the republic, Mitch McConnell did not grasp the crisis at hand. He was a hollow man at a vital hour, who wished it would all just go away. Martin captured the moment fully by recalling the abject stupidity and venality of this statement:
“I feel exhilarated by the fact that this fellow finally, totally discredited himself,” McConnell told Jonathan Martin, one of the authors of a new book called “This Will Not Pass,” when asked about his feelings on the violence and the rioters.
Trump, the Kentucky Republican said, “was pretty thoroughly discredited by this.”
“He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger,” he said, standing in a doorway of the Capitol after midnight. “Couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
What McConnell and his caucus of mostly moral cowards, extremists, liars, and seditionists demonstrate with each action and breath is that Trump didn’t do it alone. He had help. His accomplices in assaulting the American way of life include nearly every single federally elected Republican in the country. Every single one of them disdained Trump—until they didn’t.
They discarded every belief, principle and attachment to decency, obligation, responsibility and patriotism. They did it step by step, day by day until all that came before was gone, and all that was left was Trump. They collectively became toadies, sycophants and enablers for everything they claimed to once be against. Liz Cheney said it perfectly:
I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.
That is Mitch McConnell’s legacy. He was in a position to stop Trump many times. When he was called to be strong, he was weak. His faction mattered more to him than his country. He so loved his party that he was willing to let it burn down America. It almost did.
The time to deal with Trump was long ago. McConnell’s failure to do so was a dereliction of duty of staggering dimensions. In many ways, he displayed the same type of cowardice that law enforcement did in Uvalde, Texas. Cowardice is what it is.
Mitch McConnell will be remembered by history as a coward. He was a small man in a moment when America needed a giant. He didn’t measure up. His legion of consultants, lobbyists and super PACS will never be able to change that.
Steve Schmidt is a political analyst for MSNBC and NBC News. He served as a political strategist for George W. Bush and the John McCain presidential campaign. Schmidt is a founder of The Lincoln Project, a group founded to campaign against former President Trump. It became the most financially successful Super-PAC in American history, raising almost $100 million to campaign against Trump's failed 2020 re-election bid. He left the group in 2021.