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Sen. Mitch McConnell's Post-Trump Posturing


We want to talk more about one of the central figures in the negotiations still playing out in the U.S. Senate over how the Senate will conduct its business in the next few years, and we're talking about Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. The pair of Georgia runoff victories earlier this month gave Democrats 50 seats in the Senate. And that means McConnell, a Republican, is out as majority leader for the first time since 2015. And that's not all. Less than an hour before the mob invaded the Capitol, McConnell, the key factor in carrying Trump's agenda to fruition, finally shut down Trump's false claims about election fraud. And since the attack on the Capitol, he's gone even further, publicly blaming Trump for instigating the crowd, and privately, at least according to journalists, signaling a willingness to consider impeachment.

And that led Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, to ask a key question. It's the title of her latest piece for the magazine. It's titled, Why McConnell Dumped Trump. And Jane Mayer is here with us now to tell us more. Jane Mayer, thanks so much for being with us.

JANE MAYER: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, I do think it's important to point out how closely tied to Trump McConnell has been. And I'm not saying that they're friends. That doesn't seem to be the case. There's no sense of any sort of personal warmth between the two of them. But just how critical a factor was McConnell in getting Trump's agenda through? I mean, you point out that he got more than 200 federal judges pushed through. He got three very conservative judges on the Supreme Court pushed through. So how closely tied to whatever victories Trump did achieve was Mitch McConnell?

MAYER: Oh, McConnell has been incredibly important to Trump. He's made Trump's administration look like it was competent because they got legislative victories and these judges through. They got the huge tax cuts for corporations. And so for four years, really, McConnell has enabled Trump. And so this turn against Trump is really dramatic in the final day just before Biden was to be inaugurated.

MARTIN: What is your sense of what motivated that shift? And, you know, I do want to point out, a lot of people think it's because the mob invaded the Capitol. But as you point out in your piece, actually, he finally accepted the election results - belatedly, but strongly and decisively - before that happened. So what do you think was the cause of that shift?

MAYER: Well, if you look at McConnell's career, there's really one theme running through it from start to finish, and it's always his self-interest. He doesn't act out of sort of moral principle, particularly. He's always calculating what the angles are for him and for his party. And so he's got his eye on 2022. He wants to get back into being the majority leader. That's what he lives for, really. And he's now come to think of Trump as standing in the way.

What Trump has done is split the coalition that has kept the Republican Party in power for many of the past few decades. It's a coalition between big-business Republicans, sort of the establishment wing, and the social conservatives that are in the evangelical wing of the party and sort of white reactionaries. And Trump is taking those in one direction, and McConnell is getting heat from the business community and the other because after the Capitol mob rebellion and insurrection, the business world said, forget it, we're not supporting these people anymore.

MARTIN: What is his North Star? Like, what's his reason for being in office to begin with? I was thinking - I was reading - Alec MacGillis wrote a biography of McConnell called "The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell." He writes about going to the archives at the University of Louisville and finding a sort of shrine to his political career. He says what struck him was there was really nothing about any governing accomplishments. It was all about memorabilia from election victories, like, elections that he won from, you know, high school on. So why is he in public life to begin with? What's his goal?

MAYER: You know - absolutely. And Alec MacGillis' book is wonderful. Winning - he just plain wants to win. He wants to be in power. John Yarmuth, who is a congressman from Louisville, Ky., who's known McConnell for almost since the beginning of McConnell's career. And Yarmuth is a Democrat now. He used to be a Republican, but he's known McConnell really well. And he said McConnell doesn't want to do anything. He just wants to be something. He wants to be majority leader. He wants to have the power. But he really - governing isn't that much of interest to him. It's about winning.

MARTIN: So remember that after Obama was elected, McConnell famously said that his No. 1 goal was depriving Obama of a second term. He did not succeed in that. But he did succeed in kind of throwing so much sand in the gears that Democrats had a really hard time accomplishing many of their goals. They did accomplish some, the Affordable Care Act being sort of chief among them, I think, one might argue. What's his goal now?

MAYER: His goal now, as far as I can tell - he's in a very tricky spot, but his goal is the Republicans taking the majority back in the Senate, getting back in power, becoming the preeminent Republican in the party himself, being majority leader. And Trump, you know, stands in the way in many ways because Trump is splitting the party.

MARTIN: How do you think he wants to be viewed at the end of his life? I mean, not to be macabre, but none of us is going to live forever. And what do you think he wants his legacy to be?

MAYER: When you talk to people who admire him - and there are some; he's got a very loyal cadre of aides - they like to talk about him as an institutionalist. And he likes to think of himself as somebody who really understands the rules of the Senate and the history of the Senate, reads a lot of history, and that he is representing the institution of the Senate. That's how he likes to see himself. But there are many people, many critics who think that McConnell broke the Senate by using the filibuster so often and bringing gridlock and playing games that in many ways, his legacy has been the opposite of what he'd want to be seen as.

MARTIN: That was Jane Mayer. She's the chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest piece is titled, Why McConnell Dumped Trump. Jane Mayer, thanks so much for being with us.

MAYER: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAKE'S "ARCO ARENA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.