McConnell steps back, giving way to Trump. But will he still endorse him?

When Mitch McConnell announced last week that he would not run again for Senate Republican leader, he tacitly acknowledged that he doesn’t fit well in a party headed by Donald Trump – whose presidency he aided and whose candidacy he has pledged to endorse.

“Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” McConnell said, noting his efforts to successfully pass the Ukraine aid bill that was favored by only 22 of the 48 Republican senators. So we knew the larger, unspoken meaning.

McConnell's timing was a surprise

The announcement wasn’t unexpected, given McConnell’s age (he turned 82 on Feb. 20, which he noted) and his recent health issues, but its timing was a surprise. He reportedly decided weeks ago that he would step down, but didn’t want to announce that until the Senate passed the bill to keep sending aid to Ukraine. The Senate was in recess until last week, and these sorts of announcements typically come in a Senate floor speech.

McConnell began that address by saying that last month's death (still incompletely explained) of his 50-year-old sister-in-law brought “a certain introspection that accompanies the grieving process.”

When I interviewed him just days after the tragedy, he choked up as he spoke about Angela Chao, so her death may have been a catalyst.

Is McConnell endorsing Trump a promise either wants to keep?

Nevertheless, McConnell’s announcement came at a time when Trump is cementing his control of their party by locking up its nomination for president – and when The New York Times had just reported back-channel conversations between representatives of McConnell and Trump about the endorsement that McConnell said three years ago that he would give Trump if he were nominated, though they despise each other.

Purposely or not, McConnell’s announcement makes whatever endorsement he delivers to Trump less consequential, to use a word he likes to use as a neutral metric for people in public life.

What does McConnell's retirement mean? McConnell's decision to step down from GOP Senate leadership may allow him to actually lead

And that brings us to McConnell’s legacy as the Senate’s longest-serving party leader. A comprehensive analysis of McConnell’s more than 15 years on the job needs a more expansive platform.

Some topics, like the political influence of money, had other advocates, but he was a political and intellectual leader of that movement, which is fitting, because he’s one of the few politicians I know who enjoys raising money.

McConnell is one of America's most consequential politicians

But beyond the wide range of issues on which he prevailed or exercised major influence, McConnell is one of America’s most consequential politicians. Who else can say that they reshaped the Senate and then (with nominations adopted by Trump) the federal judiciary, with lifetime appointments from bottom to top?

McConnell’s calculated audacity in holding open a Supreme Court seat probably helped elect Trump, who made it his key to winning over evangelicals. Less well known is McConnell’s advancement of the filibuster as a standard operating procedure in the Senate, requiring 60 votes to pass significant bills. That dates from McConnell’s first term as leader, in 2007.

Democrats played a role, too, but most expert observers agree that McConnell was the driving force.

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So, our country and the Senate are different places because of Mitch McConnell – and not for the better, if you favor such things as a right to abortion and a tax system adequate for our needs while paying our national debt.

Nonetheless, he advanced the causes of “religious liberty, free speech, Second Amendment rights” and other conservative hallmarks, as columnist Marc Thiessen wrote in The Washington Post.

How McConnell helped Kentucky

From a Kentucky viewpoint, McConnell has used his power to help our needy state in many ways. He masterminded political victories that made it a Republican state, but that would have eventually happened, with the Democratic Party’s move to the left on social issues, away from most Kentuckians. Republicans moved right, and McConnell moved with them to enhance his chances of being a Senate leader.

McConnell is still writing his story. His full legacy may not be known until after he leaves the Senate in January 2027 – because that could be in the middle of a second term for Trump, who poses a serious challenge to the way Americans govern themselves.

McConnell twice protected Trump from conviction upon impeachment, the second time because he was unwilling or unable to get enough Republicans to “strike the snake when they had the hoe in their hand,” as put by former Kentuckian Bob Garrett, who just retired as Austin Bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

They surely feared repercussions from Trump and his voter base in the 2022 elections and beyond.

Want to know how weird Donald Trump is? Just read this transcript.

Senators have two fundamental responsibilities: to serve their states, and to serve the country – by supporting and defending the Constitution, as they swear to do.

Leaders of parties in the Senate have an additional responsibility, keeping or gaining the majority in the chamber. Sometimes leaders let that latter responsibility prevail over the one required by the oath, and put party before country.

If Trump wins in November, that could guarantee a Republican majority in the Senate, but now the party is the Republican Party in name only. It is the Trump Party, and that is not a party in which Mitch McConnell belongs. In endorsing Trump, he would be keeping a pledge, but one made before Trump was indicted on trying to overturn the 2020 election and other charges.

McConnell has an out. He should take it, or at least send a signal by delaying an endorsement until Trump is actually nominated. Let’s hope McConnell’s announcing out-of-the-party leadership is not the end of his national leadership.

Al Cross (X @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director emeritus of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004), where this column appeared. The NKyTribune is the anchor home for his column.

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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Would McConnell endorsing Trump even matter? It's a different GOP