Mitch McConnell says Donald Trump made Ukraine aid package 'doubly challenging' as he fights for deal

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WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in an interview with USA TODAY again pushed his fellow lawmakers in Congress to support Ukraine’s ongoing battle with Russia – a position he has relentlessly staked out in recent months, risking his hold over his own conference and openly defying former President Donald Trump.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, he notched a win for the assistance effort: Twenty-two Republican senators joined with Democrats to pass a $95 billion foreign aid bill that included $60 billion to support Ukraine.

It wasn't easy. The battle that led there exposed deep rifts within the GOP over the United States’ role on the international stage. McConnell has long promoted a dwindling view within the party that the U.S. should retain the role it sought to occupy for much of the 20th century as a purported defender of democracy at home and abroad.

On the other side was the up-and-coming “America First” GOP, which argues the U.S. has done enough to support its allies and should focus on issues at home. Among those was Trump, who personally spoke with senators ahead of Tuesday’s vote and is now lobbying Republican House members to oppose additional aid to Ukraine.

McConnell told USA TODAY on Wednesday that Trump – whom he called the “likely nominee” – has made efforts to aid Ukraine “doubly challenging.”

“He’s very influential, there’s no denying that,” McConnell said. “He’s got the biggest following among Republicans in the country – he’s certainly been in the process of demonstrating that.”

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives at the U.S. Capitol on February 12, 2024 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives at the U.S. Capitol on February 12, 2024 in Washington, DC.

The split among Republican lawmakers reflects a divide among the American people: Nearly a third of Americans say the government is giving too much assistance to Ukraine, according to the Pew Research Center, including around half of Republicans.

Still, the 81-year-old Senate GOP leader said it is “extremely important” that Congress provide more help. In addition to defending against the attempted expansion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in the world, he said, a victory for Ukraine would be a warning to other authoritarian governments.

He acknowledged that’s a minority view in the GOP, and one that's fueled his critics.

“There are issues that come along where the views of the public at a given time may be inconsistent with what the right thing to do for the country is,” McConnell said, despite growing qualms among Republican voters.

He cited votes to raise the debt ceiling or pass bipartisan spending bills – both fights that sparked tensions among Republican lawmakers in the last year.

“I understand why people feel the way they do – because the most prominent Republican is against the bill. So I’m not particularly surprised," McConnell said.

Trump and McConnell have a famously frosty relationship. The pair have not spoken since December 2020, when McConnell acknowledged President Joe Biden as the rightful winner of that year’s presidential election. After Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, McConnell delivered a scathing speech saying the former president is “practically and morally responsible” for the riot.

Trump has long been considered the frontrunner to be the GOP nominee in this year’s presidential election. He has recently clocked sweeping wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, making his likely win even more secure.

He has also taken steps to flex his power in Congress as he seeks another term in office. Republicans last year demanded that a border security package be tied to foreign aid, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers spent months crafting an agreement to address the U.S-Mexico border.

Trump began publicly bashing the bipartisan border deal weeks before it was released, arguing it would help Biden’s campaign and didn’t go far enough to slow migration. By the time it was finalized in early February, the deal was declared “dead on arrival” in the House and the Senate GOP dropped the proposal.

The turnaround pitted a group of right-wing senators against McConnell, whom they blamed for brokering a bad deal. Several members called for new leadership in the Senate, though it was clear there wasn’t enough consensus to force a coup.

“The way Mitch McConnell is leading the Republican conference… he’s not representing Republicans,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who challenged McConnell for his leadership post in 2022.

That kind of criticism “just sort of goes with the job,” McConnell said Wednesday. “But I know what my motivation is because I think this is important to the country and important to the world. And there are times when if you’re in a position to influence, you should do it.”

The fate of the aid package that could supply tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine is now in the hands of the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has pledged not to take it up because it lacks border provisions. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., has said his caucus will do everything it can to advance the bill, and moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said he is working on an alternative bipartisan package.

McConnell said he won’t “give the Speaker public advice,” but asked: “Why don’t they just vote on Ukraine?”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: McConnell says Trump made Ukraine aid package 'doubly challenging'