Mitch Part 5: '9 And 0' : Embedded Mitch McConnell knows that he is not popular. But, he says, the only judgment that really matters is on election day. And of the people who have challenged him, he says, "so far, there have been nine losers."

Mitch Part 5: '9 And 0'

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers.

ERIC MENNEL, HOST:

And I'm Eric Mennel.

MCEVERS: And this is EMBEDDED from NPR. When we first had the idea to do a series on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, we knew that we would eventually put in a request to talk to him.

MENNEL: But then something happened. We'd spent a couple of days in December making phone calls to people who used to work with him. And right before the office holiday party, we got an email from Mitch McConnell's office, wanting to know what we were up to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: See, McConnell has this incredibly loyal circle of people who used to work for him - people who've gone on to run lobbying firms, PR firms, political organizations. And some of them won't talk to reporters unless they get permission from McConnell. One of them probably told his office that we were poking around.

MENNEL: So we told McConnell's office, we're doing a podcast series about your boss. Could we get some time with him? And a few months later, it happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How are you all?

MCEVERS: Great.

MENNEL: Good, how are you?

MCEVERS: We got a permit for Kelly and Eric from NPR.

MENNEL: Maybe it's just because I don't report on Washington, but for me, the whole thing felt pretty bizarre from that first email to the moment we walked in the door.

MITCH MCCONNELL: Hello.

MCEVERS: Hi, there. How are you? Nice to meet you - very nice to meet you. Kelly McEvers.

MCCONNELL: How are you?

MENNEL: There was this sense that everyone already knew exactly how this was going to go...

MCCONNELL: So you've been spending a lot of time on ancient history.

MENNEL: ...Almost like it was scripted.

MCCONNELL: It'll be kind of fun to relive some of the early days. I'm looking forward to it, actually.

MCEVERS: Oh, really?

MCCONNELL: Yeah.

MCEVERS: We had told McConnell's people that we'd been reporting in his hometown, Louisville, Ky., which, he seemed eager to tell us, is a place where he is still not very popular.

MCCONNELL: You'll get a kick out of the fact I live in a - just about the most liberal neighborhood in Kentucky. Just for kicks, I looked up my vote total in my precinct in 2014.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

MCCONNELL: You want to guess how many votes I got?

MCEVERS: In strict numbers or percentage?

MCCONNELL: Percentage.

MCEVERS: Thirty-five.

MCCONNELL: Twenty-seven percent at a time when I carried 110 out of 120 counties and won by 15 points. So you get the drift.

MCEVERS: I tried to ask him about his popularity now, given his relationship with President Donald Trump and the fact that he recently got heckled at a restaurant in Louisville. But the leader - that's what his people call him - the leader is like, hang on a second; I'm directing the show.

MCCONNELL: Well, why don't we start at the beginning?

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MENNEL: When you've spent months learning everything you can about a person - reading the books, talking to people, watching C-SPAN - so much C-SPAN - what do you actually learn by sitting down in the room with him?

MCEVERS: That is our show today - our time with Mitch McConnell after the break.

OK, we are back.

Do you listen to any podcasts?

MCCONNELL: No, I never have.

MCEVERS: No?

MCCONNELL: (Laughter).

MCEVERS: Yeah, well...

MCCONNELL: This one, I will.

MENNEL: We sit down with Mitch McConnell at a big wooden table in his office in the Capitol building. There are three other staffers in the room. One of them places a phone at the center of the table so they can record our conversation. It's all very formal. McConnell sits on the edge of his seat, his back straight, his legs crossed at the ankles, right over left. And he looks you right in the eyes the whole time he's talking.

MCEVERS: You heard him say, let's start at the beginning. And that's basically what he did. He started telling stories about his early political career in Louisville and how he got elected to the post of county judge executive in 1977.

MCCONNELL: Yeah, pretty Democratic town, so I proceeded in a very pragmatic way. I didn't have to answer questions about whether I was a conservative or a liberal or - it was all about people escaping from the jail or problems in the police department - think mayor. So I worked my behind off, and I got endorsed by the AFL-CIO. And miraculously, I won. But fun to think back about it because you just couldn't imagine Mitch McConnell having the support of the AFL-CIO, could you? (Laughter).

MENNEL: It was only after this interview that we talked to former union members about that endorsement, and they say McConnell went back on his assurances to them. And they never endorsed him again. He denies that he broke any promises.

MCEVERS: I asked him about something that we had been told happened when it came time for him to run for U.S. Senate in 1984. Two people who knew him told us he said he was going to make a deliberate turn to the right so people across Kentucky would vote for him. He denied that.

MCCONNELL: No, I didn't tell them I was going to have to move to the right. I'm a Republican. I always was. It's just that most of the positions that you would take in a Senate race were irrelevant to getting elected county judge, so it was a different race.

MENNEL: It was a race he was never expected to win. He was still an unknown in politics. And he had a story about that, too. It was 1984. Ronald Reagan was in Louisville for an event.

MCCONNELL: President Reagan stepped up to the microphone. He pulled out his cue cards.

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RONALD REAGAN: It's great to be back in Kentucky and back in the land of pioneer spirit and pride.

MCCONNELL: And he said he was so glad to be here tonight with my good friend...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: Mitch O'Donnell.

MCCONNELL: ...Mitch O'Donnell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REAGAN: O'Connell, O'Connell - I must've been thinking of the archbishop. I said O'Connell - McConnell.

MCCONNELL: (Laughter) Oh, I thought, you know, this was Murphy's law. I thought, you know, is there anything else that can go wrong?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This is something we noticed during our time with Mitch McConnell - he can laugh at himself. He doesn't mind being the butt of the joke. He has a thick skin. In another Senate office, McConnell has an entire wall of negative political cartoons about him.

MENNEL: It's an attitude that's been useful. It's how he says he's been able to take the heat on some of his less popular stances - at least among some - on things like money in politics, which, of course, he believes there should be fewer limits on.

MCCONNELL: That's why they used to call me the designated spear catcher on this issue. And I've been able to rally most of my members to the same position, even though the easy thing to do - a particular set of people in your line of work are always trying to make it harder for us, which is part of your job, to take the popular route. And I've chosen not to do that on this issue.

MCEVERS: For as thick as his skin is, there are moments when he gets defensive, like when we ask about how he broke precedent to not hold a vote on President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. McConnell says, in 1992, then-Senator Joe Biden suggested he would've done the same thing.

MCCONNELL: You can't ignore the history here. One of my complaints about a lot of the articles about this - they refuse to carry what happened in the past. And you have to put that in context, or you simply buy the Democratic argument that there was something completely and totally unexpected and unusual about this. It wasn't unexpected or unusual. And I can tell you without fear of contradiction - if the shoe was on the other foot, they'd have done the same thing - absolutely certain.

MCEVERS: It's just that you are still perceived as an obstructionist. Like, that is who people think you are - some people.

MCCONNELL: Well, that's their argument, and they're entitled to their argument. I'm entitled to mine.

MENNEL: There was a kind of pattern to the conversation. When we would question McConnell on things like how he has changed the norms and rules to confirm judges to the federal courts, he had an answer - the Democrats did it first.

MCCONNELL: The correct history of it is the Democrats really started it because they were always freaked out. Chuck Schumer started us down this path back with the serial filibusters of circuit judges and Bush 43. Well, the same argument could've been made to Harry Reid in 2013 when they did a much more dramatic (unintelligible). So my critics conveniently leave out Biden, Schumer, Reid and history. Other than that, they're totally accurate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: I have to talk about the president a little bit because everybody likes to ask you about him. You know, his approval rating in Kentucky is high, and yours isn't as high. That's the math. That's the reality. That means, probably, that it makes sense to be with him on stuff.

MCCONNELL: Well, let me explain to you what happens to a leader on approval. I had terrific approval until I got to be the leader of my party in the Senate. And what happens is you get beat up a lot. I think the best way to judge Mitch McConnell is, how do the elections come out? I'm 9-0.

MENNEL: When he says 9-0, he's talking about his two wins for county judge executive, six wins for the Senate and one difficult primary win against a populous Republican.

MCEVERS: It's a thing he said to us several times in different ways, and it is one of the things I remember most from our interviews.

MCCONNELL: You know, one thing I decided early in my career - if you're constantly in pursuit of popularity, you can tie yourself in a knot. I think it's impossible to satisfy everybody. I try to deliver for my state and make decisions on what I think is in the best interest of the country. And anybody can run against me who chooses to. So far - I don't want to be - sound too cocky here, but so far, there've been nine losers.

MENNEL: The thing we heard from a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans, was just how surprised they were that McConnell seemed willing to, as they say, let Trump be Trump; to not fight harder to stop a government shutdown; to say, case closed, just after the Mueller report was released; to say, no comment, when a sexual assault allegation is made against the president. The feelings seem to be that McConnell is legitimately one of the few people in the world who can get an audience with the president and perhaps even put some checks on him. And yet, in large part, he doesn't seem to want to publicly.

MCEVERS: The feeling is that - there's this idea of being a Trump enabler, right?

MCCONNELL: Well, that's the Democrat line. I'm not saying it to offend you. I'm just telling you...

MCEVERS: Yeah, yeah. No, I'm - yeah - reading what people are writing and...

MCCONNELL: What they would hope is that we would join them and torpedo him and do nothing. I mean, that's not my idea of what our responsibility is. We were elected. He was elected. There are many things that he's willing to go along with that are consistent with - you know, with what members of my party every year's thought ought to been done and less than enthusiastic about trade and tariffs. And we've had some disagreements about that.

I'm not a mirror image of the president, but I'm glad he got elected. The choice would have been Hillary Clinton, and I would not have been able to do any of the things that I think are important to move America right of center for as long as we have the opportunity to do that. That doesn't mean you're devoid of principle, but you have to make compromises, and you have to try to advance the ball, or you make no difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: We're in this moment with our country's politics where a lot of people think the world is on fire. But in this moment, Mitch McConnell is just so calm, which can be really jarring when you sit back and think of it. Like one journalist who's covered Mitch McConnell for a long time told us, McConnell has done more to normalize Donald Trump than almost anyone - that by doing business with him in these areas where the two have mutual interests, abnormal things just don't get talked about.

MENNEL: In all the time that we talked to the senator, there wasn't one question where he had to stop and think. He had a response at the ready for everything. As a journalist, you're always out for answers. But in some ways, it would be more revealing if there were something Mitch McConnell didn't have an answer for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: At the end of our first interview, McConnell said his goodbyes and went into his office. It was actually time for him to do the thing he does every day - go next door onto the Senate floor and close up shop. But then his communications director called me back - Kelly, the leader wants to show you something.

So I go in. There's some other people hanging around, but it's clear this moment is meant for me. McConnell is standing in front of a photograph on the wall. It's of him and Antonin Scalia when the two worked together at the Justice Department in the 1970s. McConnell had given the photo to Scalia. And later, after Scalia died and McConnell held open his Supreme Court seat until a Republican got elected president, one of Scalia's sons gave it back. And here's what he wrote.

MCCONNELL: To Leader McConnell and his legendary foresight, with appreciation from the Scalia family, May 2018.

MCEVERS: McConnell told me, I get given a lot of things in my line of work, and this is one that I treasure. I thought maybe the staff was waiting for my reaction. I looked at them like, wow. I looked back at McConnell, and I saw that he had tears in his eyes. Was that because of McConnell's connection to his old friend or about the power and the enormity of the decision he had made to hold that seat open? But it was clear that the moment was over and it was time to go.

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MCEVERS: Later, I sent McConnell an email and asked him why he was so moved in that moment. He wrote, I didn't have tears in my eyes.

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MCEVERS: This episode was written by Eric Mennel and me and produced by Tom Dreisbach, with help from Nailah Andre (ph), Chris Benderev and Lisa Pollak. It was edited by Shirley Henry and Mark Memmott. Our researcher is Suzy Cummings. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans. Other music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks to Georgiana Sullivan (ph), Stephanie Penn (ph) and David Pop (ph). That's all for this series for now. Subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already. Hit us up on Twitter @nprembedded, and leave a review. We will be back soon with more EMBEDDED from NPR.

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