Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his top deputies stayed silent Tuesday as former President Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts, signaling how far they have diverged from their former ally.
Many Republican senators blame Trump for the loss of the Senate majority and the disappointing performance of Senate Republicans last year.
There are also big doubts about Trump’s ability to win the general election in 2024, especially as he faces the prospect of additional charges from the Department of Justice and the Fulton County district attorney.
His arraignment Tuesday only adds to the political baggage of the GOP presidential front-runner.
McConnell, who hasn’t spoken to Trump since December of 2020, didn’t make any statement in response to the former president’s arrest Tuesday. He didn’t say anything when news of Trump’s indictment broke Thursday, either.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stayed silent as former President Trump plead not guilty to 34 felony counts. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Instead, he put out a statement welcoming Finland’s accession to NATO, something he has championed since last year.
Al Cross, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on McConnell’s career, said McConnell doesn’t feel the same pressure as other Republicans to rally around Trump.
“Mitch McConnell does not feel pressure in the same way that other human beings do. He has steeled himself to resist the typical politician’s urge to talk and it’s paid off for him, you don’t get in trouble for something you didn’t say,” he said. “His strategy with Trump has been to not come close to that kryptonite and let other people do the talking and work behind the scenes.”
Cross speculated that McConnell doesn’t want to put himself out on a limb by defending Trump when the former president is facing additional possible indictments.
“There will be other shoes to drop and I expect Mitch McConnell knows more about Donald Trump’s situation than we do,” he added. “He is one of the most influential and best-informed people in the country and has all kinds of sources of information and he probably sees other things coming.”
Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns, noted the Senate GOP leader is sticking to his strategy of staying clear of Trump, who has attacked him repeatedly over the past two years.
“He’s sort of not mentioned Trump at all since December of 2020. He’s pretty much taken a I’m-going-to-ignore-this-guy approach. So, I think this is just a continuation of that,” he said.
“All of this circus today reinforces a larger dynamic — the American people want anything but a Trump/Biden rematch in ’24,” he added.
McConnell is trying to lessen the former president’s political influence in GOP politics.
He told reporters in February that “we’re focusing now to try to get the very most electable candidate[s] nominated” in West Virginia, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
McConnell’s cautious handling of Trump’s indictment contrasts starkly from Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) reaction.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, March 30, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
McCarthy tweeted on Tuesday that “Bragg is attempting to interfere in our democratic process by invoking federal law to bring politicized charges against President Trump, admittedly using federal funds, while at the same time arguing that the peoples’ representatives in Congress lack jurisdiction to investigate this farce. Not so. Bragg’s weaponization of the federal justice process will be held accountable by Congress.”
Even Trump’s biggest critic in the Senate GOP conference, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), called out Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
“No one is above the law, not even former presidents, but everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law. The prosecutor’s overreach sets a dangerous precedent for criminalizing political opponents and damages the public’s faith in our justice system,” Romney warned.
Senate Republicans are split over whether Congress should step into the legal battle by investigating Bragg and potentially withhold any federal grants that support his office.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), an adviser to the Senate Republican leadership team, told reporters last month that he thought House Republicans should stay focused on the agenda that got them elected to the majority last year instead of wading into battle with Bragg.
But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a newly promoted counselor to the Senate GOP leadership team, said in a statement Tuesday that “politics should never tip the scales of justice, and Congress has every right to demand answers and accountability from the Manhattan D.A.’s office.”
One Republican strategist who requested anonymity because he expects to work for one of Trump’s primary rivals said the indictment might help Trump in the short term by fueling his fundraising and spurring Republicans to rally his defense but predicted it will hurt him politically over the long term.
“Short term, what we’ve seen will continue, they’re going to rally around the president because it feels political,” the strategist said, noting that Bragg was elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic jurisdiction and backed by Color of Change PAC, which accepted funding from billionaire George Soros.
But the strategist thinks the charges will begin to weigh on Trump as the case drags on and people become more familiar with the details.
“As the 34 counts come out and people get more into the details and see what happens in Georgia and what happens on the federal level. There’s a chance to weigh the [former] president down in the muck of legal charges and in the long term becomes very detrimental,” the source added.
The strategist said McConnell “can sit back and wait before he weighs in” to see how the charges against Trump fair in court and in the court of public opinion.
McConnell initially sidestepped questions about Trump’s claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 election by telling reporters that he would let the legal system sort them out.
“The courts are here to apply the laws [and] resolve disputes,” he remarked in November of 2020 before later coming out strongly against Trump’s claims after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.