Mitch McConnell may have figured out the smartest response to a Trump tantrum: Ignore it and allow increasing exhaustion with the former president to fester among Republicans who believe unity is imperative for climbing back into the congressional majority.
McConnell and his team are bypassing a chance to hit back at former President Donald Trump, after a series of attacks in which Trump called the Senate GOP leader “a dumb son of a bitch,” a “stone cold loser,” and “helpless to fight” against what he sees as a Democratic Party drive to change the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court.
After declining reporters’ overtures for a reaction to Trump on Monday, McConnell quickly pivoted away from a query at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “What I’m concerned about,” he replied before transitioning to an attack on President Joe Biden’s policy proposals, “is the future.”
So are his colleagues, who have largely sided with McConnell over Trump in the aftermath of the latest broadside. While no one had the gall to outright condemn or rebuke Trump, GOP lawmakers, operatives and donors largely responded with a collective “sigh” of exasperation.
“I don’t agree with the things the president said on Saturday night,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the GOP’s campaign arm, said during a Washington Post livestream Tuesday. “I have a very good working relationship with Senator McConnell.”
GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said he was “very disappointed” with Trump’s comments about McConnell. Other GOP senators simply conveyed their hopes for a truce while donors privately griped that Trump’s Saturday night speech at Mar-a-Lago was “horrible and negative,” according to Politico. The arrows thrown at McConnell failed to land inside a room with GOP honchos.
Trump remains the loudest voice in the party, commanding the largest and most loyal following. His endorsement is already being aggressively sought by a slew of candidates who want to join McConnell’s Senate chamber in 2023.
But in the day-to-day combat against the Biden administration and Democratic legislative priorities, Trump is largely absent. When it comes to messaging against policies, choosing issue emphasis and deploying a long-term strategy with an eye trained on the midterms, it’s McConnell who holds the most sway.
And getting in a tit-for-tat with Trump -- a name that barely comes out of McConnell’s mouth any more -- does nothing but expend more time and attention on the 45th president.
Given Trump’s larger-than-life personality that thrives on conflict, Republican donors and operatives are perfectly content with a Senate lieutenant that gets accused of barely conveying emotion. If McConnell didn’t choose deescalation, there’s little belief that his tormentor-in-chief would.
“McConnell’s not focused on personalities, he’s focused on winning. His strength is his laser-like focus on winning. And he doesn’t let any of that noise get in the way,” said Jack Oliver, a longtime Republican fundraiser. “The Biden agenda has done more to unify Republicans than anything … He doesn’t take his eye off the ball and donors know he doesn’t take his eye off the ball, and it’s good. That’s been his gift.”
Jeff Sadosky, a GOP consultant and former aide to Sen. Rob Portman, said few politicians are better than McConnell at remaining disciplined and keeping the GOP conference from getting lured into counterproductive fights.
“Without that discipline and savvy inside game, it’s fair to say much of what Republicans tout as policy wins over the past few years, from judges to taxes, wouldn’t have happened,” said Sadosky, “and it will ensure he’s at the table if and when there’s room to make a deal, and willing to walk away when Biden’s talk of bipartisanship isn’t backed up by his staff’s action.”
Few believe this will be the last time Trump picks a fight with McConnell, but those who have worked for the Kentuckian say they would be surprised if he chose to respond in any other way.