McConnell on standing up to Trump, GOP critics on Russia

McConnell on standing up to Trump, GOP critics on Russia
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Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) wanted to talk about Ukraine and the need to stand up to Russian aggression before taking any questions from The Hill during a Wednesday interview.

The veteran Senate GOP leader, a day removed from what he saw as a significant victory in the Senate’s passage of aid to Ukraine and Israel, said showing resolve to deter foreign aggression is the “single biggest issue we’ve had in a long, long time.”

The Senate bill, approved Tuesday in a 70-29 vote, faces an uncertain future in the House after Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) issued a scathing statement hours before its passage.

And McConnell himself faces real questions about his future as the GOP increasingly takes on the American First isolationism espoused by former President Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

Yet on Wednesday, McConnell, who will turn 82 next week, signaled confidence about his future, the foreign policy he’s backed and his political leadership in a divided GOP.

Given Trump’s opposition to the package and the former president’s lobbying of GOP senators to oppose it, McConnell cast getting 22 Republican votes for the bill as an impressive outcome.

“We got about five more than we thought we were going to get,” he said of the vote.

“Trump was making some calls. It’s funny to be glad you get 22, but I’ve been on the short end of some of these other things, and 22 seemed like a landslide,” McConnell added.

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Before taking any questions, McConnell wanted to explain in strikingly personal terms why he was willing to take so much heat from within his conference to get the Ukraine package approved by the Senate.

He talked about his long history fighting aggressors and how his father, a “foot soldier” in Gen. George Patton’s army, met the Soviet Union’s Red Army face-to-face in Czechoslovakia after World War II.

“I have letters he wrote to my mother during that time saying he thought the Russians were going to be a big problem. And of course, shortly after the war, it was clear they were,” McConnell told The Hill during the interview in his Capitol office.

The veteran Kentucky lawmaker, a keen student of history, sees parallels between today and the 1940s when Sen. Robert Taft (Ohio), one of the most prominent Republicans of his day, opposed the Lend-Lease Act, which gave President Franklin Roosevelt broad authority to send tanks, airplanes, food and weapons to allies in Europe fighting Nazi Germany.

Eighty years ago, McConnell thinks America got it right by backing allies in World War II and then setting up NATO after the war to contain Joseph Stalin’s expansionist ambitions.

“Interestingly enough, Republicans were divided about that. Robert Taft, who was the most important at that particular time, was an isolationist during the ‘30s. Sixty-seven of Senate Republicans voted against Lend-Lease, so we had different periods with different views, and I think they largely reflect the views of the most prominent Republican,” he said.

He noted that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Taft in the 1952 Republican presidential primary set the course for the Republican Party over the ensuing decades and eventually helped bring down the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall.

“NATO worked; we won the Cold War,” he said — just days after Trump worried allies in the alliance with a rally story about telling a former leader he wouldn’t help “delinquent” NATO nations against Russian aggression as president.

McConnell, dressed casually in a yellow and blue plaid button-down shirt under a blue blazer, acknowledged Trump is clearly the most prominent Republican on today’s political scene and his America First policy views are shaping the broader party.

But he said sometimes it was necessary to take on such forces.

“I’m not at all surprised that affected the views of Republican voters but periodically you run into an issue where you just have to get the job done, for example, raising the debt ceiling,” he said, observing that public opinion is also “very much impacted by things like Fox News shows railing about this issue.”

He likened funding Ukraine to issues like raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government open.

“I’ll bet you 90 percent of Republicans don’t want us to raise the debt ceiling, but we do. Funding the government — a lot of Republicans think it’s a great idea to shut the government down, but we don’t,” he said.

Asked whether more Republican senators wanted to support the bill as a matter of sound policy but didn’t want to risk the political backlash of voting crosswise with Trump and parts of the GOP base, McConnell just smiled and replied: “Of course.”

McConnell looked comfortable and relaxed after a bruising battle over Ukraine that led some critics in his caucus to renew calls for him to step aside. The opponents kept the Senate in session overnight Monday into Tuesday, delaying passage of the $95 billion emergency defense package, which includes $60 billion for Ukraine.

McConnell sipped from a glass of iced Coke perched on an antique coffee table after the Senate all-nighter. He didn’t show any physical trace of the fall he suffered a year ago that kept him away from the Capitol for weeks with a concussion and fractured rib.

He shrugged off media reports claiming he suffered political damage from the GOP infighting on Ukraine and a bipartisan border security deal.

Chuckling, he said people who claim his influence is diminishing “have forgotten raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government open,” instances when a majority of GOP senators also voted against him.

He said the border deal negotiated by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), whom he tapped for the job, was “huge success by any objective standard,” emphasizing it was endorsed by the National Border Patrol Council, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

But when Republican colleagues turned against it because they didn’t think it went far enough, because it couldn’t pass the House or because of Trump’s opposition, he didn’t want it to drag down the whole bill.

“At that point, the issue was, ‘Are you going to tank the whole bill because we can’t agree on border?’ I think the answer is clearly no,” he said.

McConnell signaled he doesn’t think Johnson’s insistence on taking another shot at adding border security and immigration reforms to the package is a viable idea.

“There’s a reason why we haven’t passed a major immigration bill in all these years,” he said with a sigh. “The only advice I would give the Speaker publicly: Let the House vote on Ukraine. Just let them vote. Nobody can really figure out who’s where, and I hope he can find a way to do that.”

The walls of McConnell’s office are decorated with the portraits of Republican presidents who shared his vision of the need for a strong America projecting power and influence abroad: former Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Trump’s portrait is nowhere to be seen.

McConnell thinks recent presidents, including former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, were a bit naive to treat Russia like a “normal country” after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

He never let his guard down, and even before he joined the Senate leadership, he worked to expand NATO as a defense if Russia rose again as a threat.

“It became clear in recent years that what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin had said earlier about the breakup of the Soviet Union being the single biggest disaster of the previous century is what he really meant,” he said.

McConnell now thinks the United States is facing the most serious threats to its national security since the Cold War, but with Russia and China as its main adversaries, an argument he repeatedly made to colleagues in the tumultuous weeks preceding Tuesday morning’s vote.

He says President Biden emboldened Russia and China by withdrawing from Afghanistan in summer 2021.

“It was noteworthy that shortly thereafter Putin goes into Ukraine, so this is no ordinary issue; it’s a big, big issue,” he said.

–Updated at 7:43 a.m.

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