Trump Puts McConnell On Blast : The NPR Politics Podcast In a statement former President Donald Trump called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a "dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack" and said Republicans will lose if they stick with the senator. McConnell voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial but has been critical of Trump in recent weeks. The division between these top Republicans is just the tip of the iceberg of a deeply divided GOP.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Trump Puts McConnell On Blast

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Trump Puts McConnell On Blast

Trump Puts McConnell On Blast

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KALEY: Hi. This is Kaley (ph) from Milwaukee, Wis. I should be in Hawaii right now celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the bone marrow transplant that saved my life after a battle with leukemia. But because of everything that's happening right now, that's been postponed. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

12:41 p.m. on Wednesday, February 17.

KALEY: Things may have changed since that time. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Wow, congratulations.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: That is amazing.

DAVIS: Yeah. First of all, happy anniversary. And second of all, Hawaii will still be there after the pandemic, so you should definitely go. I've been. It's wonderful.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DAVIS: And it was only a matter of time. Yesterday, former President Donald Trump released a lengthy statement blasting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for saying Trump was practically and morally responsible for the January 6 attack on the Capitol. In his statement, Trump says that the Republican Party, quote, "can never again be respected or strong with political leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell at its helm." He called McConnell a, quote, "dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again."

LIASSON: (Laughter).

DAVIS: Domenico, Mara, I can't say I'm surprised by this statement.

MONTANARO: I, for one, am shocked, Sue - shocked.

LIASSON: I didn't know what to make of it. He went on to say, where necessary and appropriate - you can tell that somebody edited this...

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...I will back primary rivals who espouse making America great again. Well, wait a second. What does that mean?

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: Will there be any Republican that doesn't espouse making America great again, or does he want to try to depose Mitch McConnell as majority leader? I don't know what the game is here.

MONTANARO: Well, it means something very different for Mitch McConnell, obviously. You know, McConnell cares about - he doesn't really care about what kind of Republicans they are, he said in The Wall Street Journal, right? He said what kind of lane they consider themselves in, said, what I care about is electability. That's because he wants to be majority leader again, right? This is all about, for him, winning, getting back into power, driving the agenda. And that's the thing that McConnell has been focused like a laser on, which is maintaining power not just for himself, but for the conservative causes he cares about. And he very much understands that if you're in the minority, you don't control the agenda - means you don't pass any legislation that you want or get all those judges in that you would want.

DAVIS: Yeah. Let's just back it up for a second in case anyone's not entirely clear of what happened here. Obviously, last week in the impeachment trial, McConnell voted to acquit Trump. But shortly after he made that vote, he gave this really long, blistering statement about the president, blaming him for the events of January 6, saying it was a disgraceful dereliction of duty and making pretty clear that he was severing any kind of tie with Donald Trump. But Mara, that also wasn't necessarily surprising because Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are two political figures that have never really had a strong alliance.

LIASSON: No, no. Their alliance was all about an alliance of convenience. When Trump wanted his tax cut bill passed through Congress or all those judges confirmed, he relied on Mitch McConnell, and Mitch McConnell pretty much made the Trump agenda happen. But they are about as different as two men could be. Mitch McConnell is very cagey. He's very strategic. He generally doesn't say anything unless he has a real reason to. Trump tells you everything he's thinking within seconds of thinking it. You know, he has - he's just a giant id.

And they represent two different wings of the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell is the establishment, who - especially a lot of corporate leaders who've been horrified at Trump's behavior. Trump represents the grassroots. Right now, if you believe the polls, the grassroots are about - the Trumpian (ph) part of the party is about 70%, and the rest of them are in the 20s. So right now, you'd have to give points to Trump. But on the other hand, going forward, Mitch McConnell has a lot of tools and a lot of skills to play in the next couple of chapters that we don't know if Trump does.

DAVIS: Domenico, we do know that McConnell's never really had a strong relationship with the grassroots yet has always been able to maintain his grip on power. And I think most recently, pre-Trump, was the rise of the Tea Party movement, another grassroots movement that in many ways is connected to Trumpism (ph) and how Trump got elected. But McConnell was at odds with the Tea Party for years. And in primaries, he said famously one time, I'm going to crush them everywhere.

LIASSON: And he did.

DAVIS: And he did in many regards. So he has reason to be bullish that he can beat back primary challengers that he doesn't think could win even if they're loyal to Donald Trump.

MONTANARO: Well, look. In 2014, he won the battle and looks like that he's lost the war long-term. You know, he was able to beat back several Republican candidates. Groups aligned with him spent millions of dollars to beat back a lot of Tea Party candidates who he felt could not win in lots of different states. You know, you could say McConnell's the brain, but Trump has the heart of the GOP...

DAVIS: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Right now. I mean, McConnell so far underwater with how Republicans view him - really very highly unfavorably. It's Trump's party, you know, in the sense that people really love him when you talk to Republicans.

DAVIS: I also thought McConnell's statement was so interesting because you could see that it was going to cause some trouble for him internally within the Senate Republican Conference. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, of course, gave an interview with Fox News, and he talked about it.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: What I would say to Senator McConnell - I know Trump can be a handful, but he is the most dominant figure in the Republican Party. We don't have a snowball's chance in hell of taking back the majority without Donald Trump. If you don't get that, you're just not looking.

DAVIS: It's so rare for McConnell to take provocative political statements that divide Republicans, especially his own conference. And that's what I think makes this clash even more remarkable - is how rare it is for McConnell to pick this kind of fight.

LIASSON: Well, Sue, what do you think he was thinking? Was he trying to keep corporate donors from deserting the party? Was he really trying to squash Trump? Because he can't, I don't think.

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: He just doesn't have the numbers. What do you think was behind that?

DAVIS: It's always hard to get inside McConnell's head because he keeps everything so close to the vest. But it was pretty clear after January 6 that that was a bit of a breaking point for him with Trump personally. He's made that clear sort of, you know, privately and publicly in his own statements.

And I also thought it was interesting - in Trump's statement, there was also a little backhanded attack on his family. He accused Mitch McConnell of being sort of in the pocket of China, which was a sort of not-so-subtle way of attacking his wife, Elaine Chao, who actually served in the Trump Cabinet but resigned in protest after the January 6 attack. So it certainly does seem that both McConnell and Chao have made this decision together - that they are going to be part of the force of the Republican Party that tries to move it beyond Donald Trump personally, about - you know, about the cult of sort of Donald Trump but try not to lose the people that voted for him.

MONTANARO: I'm just continuously surprised by the fact that people just don't seem to learn that unless you pledge undying and absolute fealty to Trump, you will not be in his good graces. It doesn't matter if it's Mitch McConnell or Mike Pence, for that matter. This is what Donald Trump has done for his entire adult life. It's about taking people in to use them for what he can, to gain his own increased status. And Republicans should've realized coming in, you can't ride a tiger. And that's what Donald Trump is.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about the divisions within the Republican Party.

And we're back. And we have talked so much on the podcast about how the party and the base is very firmly behind Trump, even after impeachment, even after January 6. And we know that is true, but I just am still really focused on this fraction or piece of the Republican Party of self-identified Republicans who have suggested that they've broken with Trump and the party over this, you know?

I just think, Domenico, of this fraction of people - which, you know, depending on which polls you look at, it's somewhere between, like, 10- and 20% - who say they don't want Trump to be this big, prominent figure in the party. If any number of those people decide to sit the next election out because Trump is still this dominant force, that seems to be, like, a really big problem for the Republican Party.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I totally agree that I - that 21% or so, you know, of the party, if they decide to sit it out, certainly is going to be difficult for Republicans to win back a majority. I think they're struggling right now with what to do, with how to, you know, move forward with this.

And I think that, you know, even people who are very strongly against what the party is doing - they don't know, you know, kind of what the path forward is. For example, I spoke to Evan McMullin, who ran as an independent during the 2016 presidential election. He's also a registered Republican, still. He was pretty sanguine about the idea that the party is still Trump's party. You know, he said that - what I expect to happen is there's going to be a growing contingent of Republicans who want to see something new, but it's likely to remain a minority within the party leading into 2022.

And he said even if the party continues to run on Trumpism in 2022, suffers defeats, he thinks there'll be another portion of Republicans who desire direction, you know, that's different, and there'll be more robust debate. But he said he thinks it's going to take another cycle or two, really, to change. So this Trump fever isn't breaking anytime soon.

LIASSON: It usually takes a bunch of losses before a party decides to reinvent itself. But you know, right now, Kevin McCarthy in the House, who's trying to make the Republican Party a big enough tent for both Liz Cheney, Trump critic, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, you know, conspiracy theorist, is pretty similar to Mitch McConnell. They can't win without both wings of the party - the ones that want to move on from Trump and the ones who are Trump-centric. And that is a huge problem.

I talked to Ralph Reed the other day. He's a Christian conservative and a party strategist. And he said, look; we have to find a way to bring people kind of back to reality while acknowledging their concerns. In other words, he's talking about this incredibly difficult balancing act where somehow or other, you keep these two very disparate wings of the party - who believe in two different versions of reality, by the way. The 21% accepts that Donald Trump lost in a free and fair election, and the 75% generally doesn't. That's going to be hard.

DAVIS: Before we go, I just wanted to note, right before we started taping the podcast, we got a breaking news alert that Rush Limbaugh had passed away - obviously a wildly influential and wildly controversial conservative radio talk show host and, Mara, is someone I associate with Donald Trump as well because he gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his last State of the Union address.

LIASSON: Absolutely. And Donald Trump's - I can't even imagine Donald Trump's rise without Rush Limbaugh. You know, we're so focused on Twitter and on the Internet. Talk radio is one of the biggest factors in conservative politics. And he was the king of conservative talk radio for decades. So, yeah, he was a huge figure. It's hard to exaggerate the influence that he had. There are other popular talk radio figures, but I don't think any of them reach Limbaugh's stature.

DAVIS: All right. I think that's a wrap for today. You can find all the ways to stay connected with us by following the links in the description of this episode.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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