Asked by Fox’s Sean Hannity about the “swampiness” of the Kentucky senator, Graham answered this way:
“Elections are about the future. If you want to be a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with Donald Trump. Can Senator McConnell effectively work with the leader of the Republican party, Donald Trump? He is the most consequential Republican since Ronald Reagan. It’s his nomination if he wants it. … Can Senator McConnell effectively work with the leader of the Republican party, Donald Trump? …
“I am not going to vote for anybody for leader of the Senate as a Republican unless they can prove to me that they can advocate an ‘America First’ agenda and have a working relationship with Donald Trump because if you can’t do that you will fail.”
Which reads like a threat, no? Graham is saying that McConnell needs to fix the relationship with Trump — or else. Graham’s… er… advice, comes just days after Trump called McConnell a “loser” in an interview with NPR and amid a growing trend among Republican Senate candidates who say they will not support McConnell for leader if they win their races.
There’s no question that the on-again, off-again relationship between Trump and McConnell is currently in the off-again stage. Trump, unhappy with what he believes are McConnell’s capitulations to the White House and Democrats in the Senate majority on things like raising the debt limit and President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, has taken to attacking McConnell publicly while privately working to find someone to challenge the GOP leader for primacy within the Senate. (Trump is also now referring to McConnell as “Old Crow” or, alternately “old broken-down Crow.” And, no, I have no idea why Trump capitalizes “Crow.”)
McConnell, on the other hand, appears to be attempting to will Trump out of existence — refusing to engage with the former president even when asked directly about him.
When CNN’s Manu Raju asked McConnell late last year about Senate candidates lining up behind Trump, McConnell responded this way:
“I do think we need to be thinking about the future and not the past. I think the American people are focusing on this administration, what it’s doing to the country, and it’s my hope the ’22 election will be a referendum on the performance of the current administration, not a rehash of suggestions about what may have happened in 2020.”
Notice what he didn’t say in that answer? The words “Donald Trump.” That’s been McConnell’s strategy for months now — ever since the events of January 6, 2021, and Trump’s utter refusal to take responsibility for his role in them.
While McConnell voted against convicting Trump for his action (and inaction) that day, the Republican leader minced no words in laying the blame at the former president’s feet. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said at the time. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their President.”
What Graham is saying is that the current tension between Trump and McConnell can’t continue. And not just that, but also that the onus for fixing the relationship lies not with Trump but with McConnell. And that if McConnell wants to be Senate majority leader come 2023 (assuming Republicans take control of the chamber in November), then he needs to get right with Trump — and fast.
It’s not entirely clear — at least to me — how McConnell can make nice with Trump as Graham wants. The two men are oil and water in terms of their approach to politics (McConnell a behind-the-scenes operator par excellence; Trump the boastful, loud public figure). They are on opposite ends in Alaska, where McConnell is all in for Sen. Lisa Murkowski while Trump is pushing hard for GOP challenger Kelly Tshibaka, upset that Murkowski voted to impeach him over January 6.
What is clear is that this situation is getting worse, not better. Which spells trouble for McConnell.