What Mitch McConnell's truce with Trump means

  • Donald Trump shook Sen. Mitch McConnell's hand, signaling a peace between the top two Republicans.

  • The former president has repeatedly torn into Senate minority leader since leaving office.

  • Both men now recognize the benefits to playing nice with each other once more.

Former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have decided to play nice, again.

On Thursday, Trump returned to the Capitol for the first time since the 2020 election. It was also his first time back since his supporters stormed the building on January 6, 2021. At the time, the two top Republicans in Congress, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and McConnell, then the Senate Majority Leader, blamed the sitting president for the riot. McCarthy eventually made peace with Trump, but McConnell didn't talk to the former president for years. According to reports at the time and since then, the longest-serving GOP Senate leader came close to voting to convict Trump of inciting the violence.

"The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us," McConnell said of the House's 2021 impeachment proceedings, according to journalists Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin's book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America's Future."

Those past tensions were nowhere to be seen on Thursday.

McConnell said that the meeting was "really positive." Even Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Republican to vote to impeach Trump twice, was in attendance at the large gathering of the Senate GOP.

"We had a really positive meeting, he and I got a chance to talk a little bit, we shook hands a few times, he got a lot of standing ovations, it was an entirely positive meeting," McConnell told reporters, per Politico. "Mitt Romney was there, as well, and I can't think of anything to tell you about it that was negative."

Trump wants to avoid the appearance of disunity that would distract from his coronation as he is crowned the Republican Party's presidential nominee for the third straight time in Milwaukee. There's also a block of traditional, Reagan-loving Republicans that remain skeptical of returning Trump to the White House. McConnell considers himself a card-carrying member of that wing, having staked perhaps the last major fight of his legacy on a massive foreign aid bill for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.

McConnell wants the Senate majority back. He recognizes how Trump could help the GOP despite calling the former president's political standing "diminished" less than two years ago. The path back to power is favorable to the GOP on paper because the majority runs through states Trump won easily in 2020 like Montana and Ohio. Polls show the Democratic incumbents in those states are hanging tough for now.

McConnell is also thinking about his next act. Now, the longest-serving Senate leader in history, McConnell has said he will step down from the role after the election. According to Axios, he's already considering becoming chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. It would give him major sway on topics like defense spending, where he favors more interventionist foreign policy than Trump.

The pair are also behind Trump's biggest legacy: a more conservative judiciary. McConnell needed a GOP president to cement a conservative majority on the US Supreme Court. Trump's legacy will continue to be shaped in the years to come by his three nominees on the high court and the scores of lower court judges.

McConnell and Trump are still an odd pairing

Trump has far more in common with Republicans in the House, where allies like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia hold power, than the Senate GOP, which is still dominated by lawmakers skeptical of Trump's foreign and trade policy.

McConnell is the perfect encapsulation of this. The 82-year-old Kentuckian is known for saying very little in halls of the Capitol, to his colleagues' chagrin. Trump, according to an author of a forthcoming book about the Apprentice, has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of every celebrity that has crossed him. McConnell's memoir is entitled "The Long Game," while Trump redefined how Americans view the presidency through 140 and later 280-character messages on a platform created for its ephemerality.

Still, their Cold War has unnerved Republicans.

Trump did not respond to his post-January 6 isolation well. In September 2022, he asked if McConnell had a "DEATH WISH" because he supported legislation that Trump said McConnell knew he opposed.

"Mitch McConnell, the Broken Old Crow, has just conceded, for absolutely nothing and for no reason, the powerful Debt Ceiling negotiating block, which was the Republicans' first-class ticket for victory over the Democrats," Trump said in December 2021 over a deal McConnell struck to avoid the US defaulting on its debt.

Trump repeatedly lashed out at McConnell and former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. The former president went so far as to engage in patently xenophobic attacks against Chao, McConnell's wife, who resigned from the Trump administration in the wake of the January 6 attack. Trump was extremely unhappy that McConnell repeatedly worked with President Joe Biden, his former Senate colleague, on bipartisan legislation that never came to fruition when Republicans controlled the White House, particularly a sweeping infrastructure law.

Amid his pique, Trump pushed Sen. Rick Scott of Florida to challenge McConnell for the right to lead Senate Republicans. McConnell easily won, but their contest laid bare the frustration some Republicans had about the Cold War between two of their leaders.

But for all the insults, McConnell has always pledged to support the GOP nominee. In April 2022, journalist Jonathan Swan seemed perplexed that McConnell could potentially support the very man he called "practically and morally responsible for provoking" the Capitol riot.

"Well, as the Republican leader of the Senate, it should not be a front-page headline that I will support the Republican nominee for president," McConnell said. "I think I have the obligation to support the nominee of my party."

It remains to be seen what, if any, obligation Trump will have to McConnell in the coming months.

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