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McConnell-Trump relationship icy as ever

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Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) may have endorsed former President Trump in his bid for the White House, but their relationship remains as icy as ever.

McConnell still doesn’t talk to Trump, even while some of his top deputies — Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — have reached out to the presumptive Republican nominee personally in an effort to mend fences.

Most of the Senate GOP conference has come around to supporting Trump, with the glaring exception of McConnell and a few of his allies: Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Four of those senators — Cassidy, Murkowski, Romney and Collins — voted to convict Trump on the impeachment charge of inciting insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

And McConnell recently said he stands by his denunciation of Trump on the Senate floor on Feb. 13, 2021, when he declared Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

McConnell says his goal is to leave a Senate Republican majority to his successor, but he’s keeping away from Trump, making no effort to defend him from Democratic attacks.

While other Republicans, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have been able to forget about Trump’s personal attacks, McConnell has made it clear his endorsement of Trump was purely out of a sense of duty to the party and not because he’s changed his mind about Trump’s character or fitness for office.

McConnell confirmed in an interview with Louisville, Ky., radio host Terry Meiners this week that there hasn’t been any thaw in his relationship with Trump, despite his announced endorsement of the former president after he cemented his lock on the GOP nomination last month.

Asked if he had “any contact at all” with Trump, McConnell replied: “Oh, I’ve got my hands full dealing with the Senate.”

When Meiners insisted that “eventually there’s gonna have to be a ‘come-to-Jesus’” moment between Trump and McConnell, the veteran Kentucky lawmaker cut him off, asserting: “I’m spending my time on the Senate.”

That didn’t deter the radio host, who probed further by asking whether McConnell had even attempted to exchange texts with Trump.

“I thought we were going to talk about the new [men’s] basketball coach,” McConnell responded, attempting to change the subject to the University of Louisville’s Pat Kelsey.

McConnell’s relationship with Trump has been ice-cold since the two stopped speaking to each other in December 2020. 

Trump repeatedly attacked McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, despite the fact she served as his secretary of Transportation, and frequently urged Senate Republicans to oust him from the top leadership spot.

Especially galling to McConnell, Trump has mocked Chao, who is Asian American, with racist nicknames, calling her McConnell’s “China loving wife” and “Coco Chow.”

The Senate GOP leader has steadfastly refused to say Trump’s name in public and has rebuked him from time to time, albeit indirectly.

In November 2022, McConnell condemned Trump’s decision to host Nick Fuentes, an outspoken white supremacist and antisemitic organizer, at his dinner table at Mar-a-Lago.

“There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy, and anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view … [is] highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States,” he told reporters at the time.

McConnell more recently knocked Trump’s claim at a campaign rally that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

“It strikes me that didn’t bother him when he appointed Elaine Chao the secretary of Transportation,” he said wryly in December.

When he endorsed Trump last month, he made it clear the decision was strictly business.

“It is abundantly clear that former President Trump has earned the requisite support of Republican voters to be our nominee for President of the United States,” McConnell said after Trump dominated his rival Nikki Haley on Super Tuesday.

“It should come as no surprise that as nominee, he will have my support,” he said.

Al Cross, director emeritus of the Institute of Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime McConnell observer, said his decision to endorse Trump was “just business.”

“They handle their business transactions through intermediaries, and they’re not having anything else to do with each other until they absolutely have to,” he said, noting the past enmity between the two men.

He observed their relationship is “one hundred percent business and zero percent personal.”

“It’s fair to say or fair to speculate that if Trump had not been so nasty to McConnell and his wife, there might have been a little of warmth in the endorsement,” he said.

Cross said McConnell “laid down the marker” after Jan. 6, 2021, when he made clear he viewed Trump as responsible for the attack on the Capitol, which injured dozens of police officers and vandalized the Senate.

“He’s not going to back down from that,” he said.

Indeed, when asked about his scathing floor remarks about Trump on the third anniversary of Jan. 6, McConnell told reporters: “I recently reread it; I stand by what I said.”

He made those comments responding to Trump’s characterization of rioters arrested and convicted for storming the Capitol as “hostages.”

McConnell has struck a markedly different tone on Trump compared to Thune and Cornyn, who despite their past disagreements, are scrambling to forge a personal connection with him.

Thune called Trump before he endorsed him in late February and is highlighting his past work as Republican whip to enact Trump’s agenda during his second two years in the Oval Office.

Thune, who is running to succeed McConnell as leader, says he’s “absolutely” ready to collaborate closely with Trump. 

“We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to hit that running,” he told The Hill last month.

Cornyn reached out to Trump personally when he announced his candidacy to become the next Senate GOP leader.

He made a point of reminding Trump they worked closely together in 2017 and 2018 to pass Trump’s landmark tax bill and confirm two conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

“I mentioned to him again how constructively we worked together when I was majority whip, when he was president,” Cornyn recounted of his chat with Trump.

But Cross, who has watched McConnell closely throughout his career, noted that Thune and Cornyn are looking to a possible future as Senate leader working with a new Trump administration, while McConnell said this week he’ll be moving in a “different direction” after stepping down as leader at year’s end.

“They’re looking ahead and he’s not, at least when it comes to Donald Trump,” he said.