McConnell surely cannot approve of Trump’s behavior, so why not say so?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had scheduled a press conference in Louisville recently, which he had to cancel because his flight from Washington was canceled, his office said. Too bad; there are many questions that could have been asked and can still be. Here are a few.

What did you think of what President Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast about Mitt Romney, the only senator to vote to convict a president of his own party, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, essentially calling her a liar as she sat four seats away? (“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong, nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”) What went through your mind later that day, as you sat near the middle of the front row in the East Room of the White House, witnessing one of the more disgraceful and deranged public performances ever by a president of the United States?

Trump, reveling in the failure of his impeachment, made a formal “Hail to the Chief” entrance and then rambled and ranted profanely (“Russia, Russia, Russia — it was all bullshit”), questioned Pelosi’s faith (“I doubt she prays at all”), called FBI leaders “scum” and made bizarre remarks about certain supporters. “A lot of wives wouldn’t give a damn,” he said, recalling how devastated the wife of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise was when he nearly died in a mass shooting, a topic to which Trump devoted almost 900 words in a 9,700-word discourse.

The president thanked many people, especially McConnell, who managed an impeachment trial that wasn’t really a trial and thus didn’t really exonerate Trump, because it had no witnesses. Here’s his ramble: “Mitch McConnell, I want to tell you: You did a fantastic job. Somebody said, ‘You know, Mitch is quiet.’ I said, ‘He’s not quiet. He’s not quiet. These are the — he doesn’t want people to know him. … A tough guy to read.  I’d call him. My wife would say, ‘How did you do with Mitch?’ [Reply:] ‘Uhh, I don’t know.’ That’s what makes him good … He’s the greatest poker player, right?” Yes, he is.

McConnell seems to subscribe to the maxim, “You never get in trouble for something you didn’t say.” And even when journalists get a chance to ask him questions, he knows he can usually get away with not answering, one way or another. Most of the time he’s been asked about Trump’s behavior, he declines to comment. But sometimes that approach doesn’t work. When asked what he thought of Attorney General William Barr’s call for a lesser sentence than career Justice Department prosecutors had recommended for Trump confidant Roger Stone on charges of obstructing Congress and witness intimidation, McConnell replied, “I don’t have an opinion on that.”

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What? No opinion? From a lawyer who worked in the Justice Department for 15 months as it recovered from the Watergate scandal, until now the greatest challenge by a president to the rule of law, which is fundamental to our republic? No, Mitch McConnell must have had an opinion, and we got a better idea what it was two days later -— after Barr told ABC News that Trump’s tweets about matters before the Justice Department were making it impossible for Barr to do his job as attorney general. Once he could talk more about someone else’s opinion than his own, McConnell spoke up, telling Bret Baier of Fox News that Trump should listen to Barr’s “advice.” But Courier Journal reporter Sarah Ladd noted, “McConnell didn’t directly answer questions about whether he personally thought Trump’s tweets were problematic.”

Early in Trump’s term, McConnell said Trump shouldn’t tweet so much. Then, he said the president “had excessive expectations” of what Congress could accomplish. Then, Trump blamed McConnell for not repealing Obamacare. But after they had a private, profane exchange — later leaked, surely, by McConnell — Republicans passed a big tax cut and Trump praised the majority leader. Since then, they seem to have developed a good working relationship, cemented by the so-called trial. McConnell is on the ballot this year and is less popular in Kentucky than Trump, so he will temper any criticism of the president. But there are bigger things at stake than his re-election, such as the rule of law. Post-impeachment, Trump seems wilder than ever, which raises this question for McConnell: If this is what happens when Trump fails to learn his lessons, shouldn’t we fear worse in a second term?

McConnell’s success has come in part from resisting the typical politician’s urge to speak. But I’m confident he is not oblivious to Trump’s behavior and the threats it poses. I’d just feel better if he would tell us so.

Al Cross is a professor in the UK School of Journalism and Media, director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and a former Courier Journal political writer. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He writes this column for the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. Reach him on Twitter @ruralj.

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