McConnell in Winter: Inside the GOP Leader’s Attempt to Thwart Trump

McConnell in Winter: Inside the GOP Leader’s Attempt to Thwart Trump

McConnell in Winter: Inside the GOP Leader’s Attempt to Thwart Trump

HELSINKI — Mitch McConnell has made it his practice to dodge questions about Donald Trump. Whether it be Trump’s bid to reclaim office, the mounting indictments leveled against the former president or even Trump’s racist mockery of McConnell’s wife, the Senate Republican leader avoids engaging a man he disdains.

Which is why it was so striking last month to sit in McConnell’s Capitol office and have him repeatedly steer our conversation toward Trump. I was there to discuss his forceful and out-of-vogue campaign to keep Republicans defending Ukraine and, more broadly, on the Reaganite path of projecting strength abroad. And at every turn, McConnell made plain it was his way of battling what Trump has done to the party.

Did McConnell feel compelled to fill the national security vacuum left in the GOP by the death of former Sen. John McCain?

“I wasn’t thinking of it in that way,” he said, “I was thinking of it in terms of the reservations the previous president seemed to have, and has expressed in his current campaign.”

From the Senate floor and Washington fundraisers to awards banquets and congressional delegation trips overseas, Addison Mitchell McConnell is on what could be his final political mission. And the results may illuminate what has become of his party.

After a relatively harmonious first half of this year, House and Senate Republicans are on a collision course this fall over four issues, three of which pertain to McConnell’s quest: spending, supporting the Ukrainians and Trump’s candidacy. (The fourth is impeaching President Joe Biden, which is intended as retribution for Trump’s impeachment over, well, spending and Ukraine.)

This confluence of issues will test who has the upper hand in the GOP, at least in the halls of Congress. Is it the McConnell-led Senate, which largely wants to spend more on defense, deliver additional aid to Ukraine and is not exactly enthused about Trump’s resurrection? Or is it the House, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy is handcuffed to his party’s hardliners on spending and has little appetite to imperil his job by pushing through a supplemental package for Ukraine that Trump is sure to decry and perhaps pressure rank-and-file lawmakers to oppose amid demands that they, and McCarthy, endorse him?

McConnell went to Kyiv last year to reassure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about Republican support for their cause.

Of all the ways Trump has reshaped the Republican Party, it’s clear that McConnell sees the drift toward isolationism as the most pernicious — particularly at a moment when the fate of Ukraine and perhaps even NATO countries could be determined by the resolve of the Republican Party.

“I think, and this got me attacked by Tucker Carlson back when he was still on his show, I think the most important thing going on internationally right now is the Ukraine war,” McConnell told me.

That’s why he organized a dinner with Finland’s president in Washington soon after Russia’s 2022 invasion, during which McConnell and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), his lieutenant on national security issues, urged the Finns to join NATO; it’s why McConnell decided to mix up his biennial trip abroad with freshmen Senate Republicans this year to take them to the Munich Security Conference and Helsinki as well as their more traditional stops in the Middle East; and it’s why McConnell, along with two of his potential successors as GOP leader, went to Kyiv last year to reassure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about Republican support for their cause.

“I don’t have that big of a megaphone, but to the extent that I would be involved in these issues, I wanted him to know that that was the mainstream view,” McConnell recalled what he conveyed to Zelenskyy about the GOP.

And you’re not going anywhere, I asked McConnell.

“Not anytime soon,” he shot back.

Yet that’s where this moment becomes more poignant. A week after the interview, McConnell went silent for 20 agonizing seconds during his regular press availability in the Capitol. The freeze-up, which only ended when a physician colleague escorted him away from the microphones, made public what has become an open secret in Washington: McConnell is becoming an old man.

Plagued by worsening hearing loss, the after-effects of his March fall at the former Trump hotel (how’s that for an accident of history?) and the lingering impact of his childhood bout with polio, the longest-ever serving Senate leader is suddenly looking and sounding every bit his age of 81.

McConnell would like it known that he’s hardly the only one putting the elder in elder statesman these days — which is why after his press conference episode he joked to President Biden, his fellow 1942 baby, about being “sandbagged.” It was vintage McConnell: invoking Biden’s frailty, namely his spill at the hands of an errant sandbag at the Air Force Academy this year, to mitigate scrutiny of his own senior moment.

However, as somebody who’s covered McConnell for years, it’s jarring to see his decline. He told me at the end of our interview that, yes, he would be at the Fancy Farm picnic this month. The gathering is Kentucky’s annual political bacchanal, a 142-year-old church barbeque fundraiser in which pigs, lambs and politicians are all roasted in their own way to please an audience that descends by the thousands the first Saturday in August to a hamlet that’s anything but fancy.

Sure enough, there was McConnell, in his first major public appearance since his freeze-up, on stage gamely getting off zingers at Biden, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and other Democrats.

Yet his voice was diminished, he mostly read his lines without looking up and his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, had to help him up from his chair each time he stood.

Always protective of McConnell, Chao has become forceful this year, keeping details of his condition private and acting as his aide-de-camp on the road. She scanned the stage floor at Fancy Farm to detect the stray sandbag, held up his speech folder to cover her lips in the fashion of an NFL coach while speaking loudly to McConnell as they sat before his remarks and rarely left his side throughout the day.

As I reported this column over the summer, speaking to dozens of officials in European capitals and Washington, two recurring themes emerged.

One was the degree of McConnell’s focus, to borrow what may be his favorite word and practice. In public and private, he’s waging a determined campaign to defend Ukraine, protect NATO and bequeath a Republican Party that’s as committed to what he calls “peace through strength” as the one he found in Washington after he was elected to the Senate in 1984 thanks in part to Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection.

Just since McCarthy’s debt ceiling deal at the end of May, which sent a chill through the ranks of Congress’s defense hawks, McConnell has used eight speeches on the Senate floor and five news conferences to address the importance of supporting the Ukrainians.

However, in many of my conversations, and usually not for attribution, another theme came up: how much McConnell has aged. Unlike with Biden, whose every gaffe and slip on the steps is caught on camera, McConnell’s difficulties have been largely out of view, or at least they were until late last month. In private, though, McConnell’s colleagues have grown more alarmed, with one lawmaker even talking to the leader’s staff about whether he should consider hearing implants.

“He was sitting there as the conversation went on around him,” said an attendee of a recent Senate Republican lunch, alluding to McConnell’s hearing loss.

This convergence of mission and moment — McConnell in the winter of his career attempting to thwart Trumpist isolationism — may have been less crucial had the leader shown more leadership in the last days and immediate aftermath of the former president’s term. McConnell’s assessment late on the night of Jan 6 that, with his conduct that day, Trump had “put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger” has proven wildly wrong or at least wholly dependent on the whims of a federal jury.

The party’s drift on foreign policy wouldn’t have been reversed, but Trump would not have the same authority on this, or any, issue had McConnell sought 10 more Senate Republicans to convict the former president of his second impeachment and barred him from seeking office again. He said at the time that he was convinced by constitutional arguments about impeaching a president no longer in office, but clearly his caucus’s lack of appetite for conviction weighed on him.

By avoiding a confrontation with Trump then, he’s effectively raised the stakes on his longer-distance clash with Trumpism now.

“This is the defining, final battle of his career, keeping the party away from this new flirtation with isolationism,” said Scott Jennings, one of McConnell’s closest advisers and handful of surrogate sons.

McConnell, ever cautious about turning himself into a lame duck, usually sniffs out and dismisses rearview-facing questions about his legacy. However, the man who set up his Senate institute and archives the year after his first reelection has long been consumed by history — and his place in it.

And at a time when he and his inner circle are all sitting down with and turning over old files to AP’s Michael Tackett, who’s writing a comprehensive McConnell biography, the leader was remarkably candid when I asked where his current crusade rates to him over the arc of his career.

“Well, I still believe in the Republican party of Ronald Reagan,” McConnell said.

Yet he’s not only trying to win this one for the Gipper.

“There are those who are trying to redefine what a Republican is — I’m not in that group,” he continued. “And so this is, I think, an important point for the future of the party, and given my place in my career at this point, this is the most important thing going on that I might be able to have some impact on.

There’s a reason why McConnell was so sensitive about the “Moscow Mitch” slur hurled against him by Democrats in the Trump years: He inherited his wariness of Russia.

At the outset of our interview, and without prompting, McConnell recalled how his father served in Patton’s Army during World War II and became uneasy with the Soviets by war’s end.

“I have some letters in my archives that he wrote my mother predicting the Russians are going to be a big problem,” he explained, adding: “So imagine my caution at the end of the Cold War in assuming the Russians were going to be different, that they were somehow going to be allies.”

McConnell reminded me how he was an early proponent of NATO expansion to the east, which was “one of the smartest things we did because the Russians may call themselves something else now, but this is the same old Soviet Union,” as he put it.

His aides, current and former, are even more emphatic about how much of a Russia hawk McConnell was in the aftermath of the Cold War, particularly when it came to offering support to former Soviet satellite states.

Billy Piper, a former McConnell chief of staff, recalled a 30-year-old conversation McConnell had with then-Estonian President Lennart Meri during which Meri said, “We are a very little country, and you have made us safe.” McConnell, from his perch on the foreign operations panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had included a rider in a spending bill denying Russians aid unless they withdrew their military from Estonia and other Baltic states.

By the 2000s, McConnell, as with all of Washington, had shifted attention to the Middle East. Yet when Trump emerged as the Republican standard bearer, McConnell’s old friends in Europe once again showed up at his door, quite literally.

“We found ourselves in 2016 having many, many foreign dignitaries and diplomats coming to S-230,” said Tom Hawkins, McConnell’s former national security aide, referring to the Capitol office suite of the Republican Leader. “It became apparent that the Europeans were getting nervous, which elevated his concern about NATO.

Once again, it was the Baltic countries, Latvia this time, that were particularly alarmed. So McConnell wound up holding a mini-summit of Eastern European nations in the Mansfield Room of the Capitol, where party luncheons usually take place, aimed at assuaging their concerns about Trump’s criticism of NATO.

It was unusual, a McConnell aide recalled, because most of their meetings with heads of government were only with one country. However, McConnell wanted to make a point to all the nations formerly in Russia’s sphere of influence and told his staff they were doing the meeting, no questions asked.

Other times, McConnell aides had more success in reining him in. Hawkins recalled that ahead of Trump’s first NATO summit, he and others had to talk the lawmaker out of giving a last-minute speech with no preparation on the Senate floor supporting the alliance, remarks McConnell wanted to give because he feared, accurately, that Trump would chide NATO countries while in Europe.

This all may sound like so much staff buffing of McConnell’s legacy. Yet I remember in those years how fixated McConnell was on sending a message to the Europeans about American support because he said as much.

“I was the one who suggested to Nancy that we have the NATO commander address the joint session of Congress,” McConnell pointedly told me in 2019 about a conversation he had with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi regarding inviting Jens Stoltenberg to the Capitol. “I just wanted to reassure the Europeans, I have been for the last couple of years, that we still think NATO is important, the most significant military alliance in history.”

That address, a top adviser to Stoltenberg told me this summer, was crucial in demonstrating the continued bipartisan commitment to NATO, and it came at a crucial time after Trump had threatened to pull the U.S. out of the alliance unless other countries spent more on defense and shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis had resigned.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year, stunning Europe, McConnell saw an opening. Now was the time to bring Finland and Sweden, the two Scandinavian holdouts, into NATO.

Meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö and the country’s diplomats a month later over dinner at the country’s Washington embassy, McConnell and Cotton lobbied them to join the military alliance and promised to deliver the Republican votes in the Senate to ratify their ascension.

For his part, the Finnish leader wanted to make sure the votes would be there in a post-Trump party.

“I think President Niinistö wanted to take the temperature of the opposition party here in America,” said Cotton.

The two American lawmakers had an advantage going in: Eric Edelman, an anti-Trump national security hawk, former diplomat and informal McConnell adviser, had served as ambassador to Finland in the Clinton administration and got to know Niinistö. Edelman briefed McConnell’s staff and Cotton on how to approach the taciturn Finn, who turned out to be a good fit for the two all-business senators.

“I didn’t make the match, but I tried to provide the Americans with love potion number nine,” he recalled.

The major discussion at dinner, McConnell told me, was whether voter sentiment in Scandinavia would shift in the aftermath of the invasion. By May of last year, when McConnell went to Kyiv and then stopped in Helsinki and Stockholm, “public opinion in Sweden and Finland had totally changed,” he said.

McConnell arrived in Helsinki last year right as Finland’s parliament was voting to join NATO and quickly picked up where he left off with Niinistö.

The American was candid with the Finn about Trump, according to two attendees of their meeting, stating that the former president had “redefined narcissism.”

Niinistö in turn recounted to his American visitors how, four years earlier in the same room where they sat in his residence, Trump had asked why Finland didn’t join NATO. This was on the same trip where Trump had threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance and then gone to Helsinki and sided with Vladimir Putin over American intelligence services on Russia’s role in the 2016 election.

Niinistö made clear he didn’t know what to make of Trump’s suggestion then while McConnell, the attendees said, only offered a knowing chuckle as if to say: Welcome to my world. Last year, after the Senate voted with only one dissent to approve Finland’s entry to NATO, McConnell sent the signed roll call sheet to Niinistö.

McConnell (left) arrived in Helsinki last year right as Finland’s parliament was voting to join NATO and quickly picked up where he left off with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.

When I visited Helsinki this summer, nearly every conversation began with two questions to me: Will Biden still be the Democratic nominee by election day and can Trump win again?

With 830 miles of Russian border, not-so-distant memories of fending off their own Russian invasion and a compulsory military service requirement that’s endured because of that history, Finland is as attuned as any European country to the American political debate over Ukraine.

“I am worried about that possibility,” Matti Vanhanen, the former speaker of Finland’s parliament, told me when I turned the question to him about Trump’s return. “If I would be in office still, I couldn’t say this, but of course I’m very worried about continuity in U.S. politics because Putin is able to use that uncertainty. One year is nothing to him.”

Or, as another top official in the current government in Helsinki put it when I asked him what worried him most about Ukraine: “The U.S. in one way or another growing tired.”

McConnell acknowledged that he, too, is asked by overseas allies about Trump’s return. “Well, I say we don’t know,” he admitted. “In this country, the voters get to decide.”

Does that reassure them?

McConnell chuckled. But he added that he tells European leaders that “the prevailing views, even when he was president, among Republicans was support for NATO and suspicion about the Soviet, or Russia.”

Asked more broadly about how alarmed he is about both Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the two leading Republican presidential candidates, being well to his left on Ukraine, McConnell argued that Ukraine has a backstop in the congressional GOP.

“No matter who’s in the White House, it’s not helpful if you have a president who’s not in favor of this, but in order to enact a policy, you have to deal with a lot of people,” he said. “And I do think that the congressional leaders on defense and foreign policy think that this is important.”

Those ranks include McConnell ally Susan Collins, the Maine senator who’s the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and accompanied McConnell to Kyiv and beyond last year.

“It really mattered to President Zelenskyy that the top Republican in Washington was coming to see him and pledge support,” Collins recalled, adding that Zelenskyy even grasped congressional diplomacy enough to refer to them as “the upper chamber.”

Perhaps the biggest impediment to McConnell’s campaign is that newly elected congressional Republicans are far less hawkish.

Only 11 Senate Republicans opposed a Ukrainian aid bill last year, but of those seven had been first elected in 2018 or later. The challenge is even more acute in the House, which by its nature is more reflective of the party’s impulses. Of the 89 House Republicans who supported Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-GA) amendment to strike $300 million in Ukraine funding in last month’s defense authorization bill, 64 had been first elected since 2018.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the only senator to oppose Finland and Sweden’s ascension to NATO, said there’s a reason why the newer lawmakers are so reluctant to send aid to Ukraine.

“Because they’ve just been talking to voters,” Hawley said, arguing that the GOP rank-and-file has little appetite for pouring more money and weapons into Ukraine. The polling, much of it dependent on the wording, is more divided in terms of Republican sentiment. Yet there’s clearly significant reluctance at the grassroots, and that opposition is likely to only grow as the war drags on.

McConnell said there’s no mystery why.

“That’s a reflection of the challenges at the base created by the former president’s reluctance to endorse this important mission,” he said. Recognizing this shift in the party and viewing the Ukrainian conflict as the most significant issue of the day, McConnell upended a tradition he began since becoming GOP leader in 2006.

McConnell had always taken the newly elected Senate Republicans to the Middle East, his presence ensuring them access to heads of state rather than mere advisers or parliamentarians. It was important, McConnell told his aides, to inculcate the lawmakers early in their terms about the importance of the country’s alliances because they were only arriving in Washington with what he called “newspaper knowledge.”

For this year’s trip, though, he took a group of the freshmen first to the Munich Security Forum, an annual winter gathering of European diplomats, defense ministers and lawmakers at a Bavarian hotel.

It was this February CODEL, as the congressional delegation trips are called in the Capitol, that caught my eye about what McConnell was up to. He had never attended the conference, leaving attendance to travel-happy Senate hawks such as McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Now, though, it was McConnell at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, accompanied by an impressionable group of newly elected Senate Republicans, who opened his remarks with a message as much for them as the Europeans.

“I am a conservative Republican from America, and I come in peace,” he said. “Reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated.”

Participating in a small, center-in-the-round forum, with the freshmen in the front row of the audience behind him, McConnell was even more pointed. The panel’s moderator read a blind quote from The Washington Post in which a Biden administration official said the U.S. couldn’t “do anything and everything forever” for Ukraine.

“That’s obviously a person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” McConnell sneered. “So let me just tell you what the people who are actually elected to office and actually make the decisions about how long America is committed to this think: Russia has to lose in Ukraine, and we can’t put a time limit on it.”

The reaction from the Europeans was immediate, said Alexander Lambsdorff, who was then a German parliamentarian and has since been named as his country’s ambassador to Russia.

“Relief, relief, relief,” Lambsdorff told me in Berlin this summer.

The delegation, which included first-term Sens. Katie Britt (Ala.), Pete Ricketts (Neb.), Markwayne Mullin (Okla.) and Ted Budd (N.C.) as well as trusted McConnell deputies Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Thom Tillis (N.C.), then went on to Helsinki and a handful of Middle East capitals.

Britt recalled discussing with Mullin how consumed and curious the foreign leaders were about America’s commitment.

“We would talk when we got in the car just about how critical it was to hear how America is portrayed in other places,” she said, adding that they wanted to know the U.S. “will still stand by their side, that our word means something, that we believe in democracy and those ideals, that we believe in NATO.”

The 41-year-old Britt could be a future counterbalance to the party’s rising isolationism, which McConnell seemed to recognize when he brought her onto his leadership team just months into her first term.

McConnell said he didn’t put much of a thumb on the scale during the trip and even unknowingly alluded to Hawley’s point about the party’s voters.

“In terms of so-called selling it, I thought the best way to do it was to have others because these were people who just faced the voters, heard plenty of arguments to the contrary and needed to hear it from someone else other than just the people who sent them here,” he said. 

While McConnell may have succeeded with those who came, what was just as notable were the freshmen senators who were not on the trip: J.D. Vance (Ohio) and Eric Schmitt (Mo.). McConnell’s aides stressed that both senators had legitimate conflicts, but McConnell himself, without prompting, conceded that the two Midwesterners were closer to Trump than him on national security.

“I think the freshmen are kind of split, it looks like at the moment,” he said. “Eric and J.D. Vance are in a different place. Neither of them actually made the trip.”

McConnell has continued to work on Mullin, though. A year after the Munich CODEL, Stoltenberg and his NATO lieutenants came to Washington for a series of meetings. And there, standing behind McConnell and Cotton in the leader’s suite waiting to greet the Norwegian diplomat, was the plumber-turned-politician from Oklahoma.

In the capital, McConnell has been the most prominent Republican to make the case for confronting Russia — often doing so in ways he knows will resonate with his party.

“He’s giving cover to people who still believe that but are getting hammered at home by our populist right,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, told me.

When McConnell received an award late last year from the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a group dedicated to promoting foreign aid alongside defense, he made an emphatic case that hard power goes hand in hand with soft power.

“This is not just some altruistic project,” he said about American support for the war, noting that the Ukrainians “are massively degrading the future offensive military capabilities of one of the greatest self-appointed foes of international peace and stability.”

McConnell often links Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to China, which he knows his party is more focused on.

Pointing to the financial and munitions contributions to Ukraine from U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan, McConnell told me those nations “view this as very relevant to the Chinese threat in their neighborhood” and argued that a Ukrainian victory would “certainly make [China] less likely” to invade Taiwan.

When McConnell attended a private Cotton fundraiser in June, the Arkansas senator concluded their dinner program conversation by cueing up McConnell on an issue “of great importance.”

McConnell told the donors that the U.S. is only spending about 0.02 percent of our gross domestic product on the war.

“And for that, we are helping these brave Ukrainians defeat the army of one of our biggest adversaries,” he said before deadpanning: “I can’t think of anything not to like about that.”

The donors laughed before McConnell turned more serious. “I want us to stick with it, and I know that there are some voices who question that, but I really think this is really, really important,” he said.

More telling was how much more, and how much more powerfully, the 46-year-old Cotton spoke that evening. Yes, it was his event. It was clear in that moment, though, what started to emerge in the reporting after McConnell’s 20 seconds of silence last month: He’s starting to cede more to his colleagues.

Also notable was what Cotton said, namely why he thinks there’s such sustained Republican opposition to aiding Ukraine.

“If Joe Biden is doing it, it must be bad,” Cotton said of his party’s assumption. “And the second reason is that Joe Biden is doing it very poorly.”

What bothers Republicans, partisans like McConnell and Cotton as well as more conciliatory lawmakers as Collins, is that Biden has been consistently reluctant to give the Ukrainians the military support they ask for only to eventually bow to their requests.

Equally frustrating to the lawmakers is that Biden has not done more to rally popular support for American involvement in the war, to make a compelling public case for why the outcome matters to U.S. interests.

Collins said she had voiced her frustration to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in public and in private.

“I don’t understand the hesitation because if you remind people that no American blood is being shed, there’s never been a request from the Ukrainians for boots on the ground, that the Ukrainians have shown extraordinary fortitude and bravery and the Russian invasion was unprovoked, brutal, unjustified, then, I’ve found with my constituents, that people start to come around,” she said. “But if they don’t hear that case and they see all this humanitarian and military aid going, they understandably think: ‘Well, what’s in it for us?’”

What puzzles me just as much is why Biden has not enlisted McConnell more to help him with Republicans on the war. Not only do the two have a nearly 40-year relationship, but Biden knows well how valuable Senate allies of the other party can be to American presidents. Look no further than the role Senate GOP Leader Everett Dirksen played in helping LBJ push through Civil Rights and Voting Rights in the 1960s or what Bob Dole, not only the Senate Republican Leader but an aspiring presidential candidate, did to help Bill Clinton defend Bosnia in the 1990s.

“Considering the long history that they have together, you’d think there would be more [outreach] and there really isn’t,” Thune said of Biden’s reluctance to call on McConnell.

It’s not that the Kentuckian, who’s disdained by Trump’s supporters, could serve as a public surrogate on the war or join Biden in a public fashion. But why not dispatch him to help devise what will have to be a creative plan to get additional Ukrainian aid through both chambers of Congress?

Biden needs McConnell, but the president needs Kevin McCarthy even more on Ukraine.

Which is another way of saying that the fate of McConnell’s last great campaign at this point is largely in the hands of a House lawmaker with little anchorage in national security, or any, policy.

What was striking to me in Europe, even at the highest levels of government there, was how little familiarity officials had with McCarthy and House Republicans — or how crucial they’re about to be to keeping Ukrainian aid flowing.

When I told McConnell this, he ruefully agreed.

“Unless you hear from some of us, your impression if you’re in another country is that the president speaks for everybody,” he said.

McConnell was more tight-lipped about McCarthy than any other matter when we spoke. Yet McConnell allowed that he told the speaker in private what he said in public: that the defense spending agreed to in the debt ceiling negotiation was inadequate.

Did he agree with you, I asked.

“He did the best he could,” McConnell said.

More candidly, the senator acknowledged that the Ukrainians must demonstrate success in their counteroffensive to get more dollars out of Congress.

“If it looks like a total stalemate, that’s not helpful,” he said.

Graham — ever the hawk, ever voluble and ever playing the angles — was more forthcoming.

“It’s got to be more than Ukraine,” he said. When I cracked that some Republican lobbyists were already musing that hurricane season may bring a storm through red America that opens up GOP lawmakers to voting for supplemental spending, he shot back: “Don’t worry, there will be.”   

The Biden administration seemed to grasp their challenge this week when they unveiled a $40 billion supplemental funding request that, in addition to about $24 billion more for Ukraine, also included money for the border and disaster response.

McCarthy’s office issued a statement that the House “will not rubber-stamp any blank-check funding requests,” but that was at least an improvement from his comments in June that supplemental aid for Ukraine was “not going anywhere” in the House.

What may change that is if the eventual bill includes funding for both Ukraine and more China-oriented defense ends.

“If you can make it about America’s national security, less about Ukraine, then I think you got a hook there that you can build a broader coalition,” said Thune.

That’s what many Senate-watchers see in the making with Sen. Roger Wicker’s move to block the Biden administration’s request to fast-track authorization of the so-called AUKUS agreement to let the U.S. sell Australians additional nuclear submarines. The Mississippi Republican vowed to block authorization until the White House submits a supplemental bill with funding for the U.S. to purchase additional submarines of our own.

“The administration’s current plan requires the transfer of three U.S. Virginia-class attack submarines to Australia from the existing U.S. submarine fleet without a clear plan for replacing these submarines,” Wicker and Collins co-wrote in a letter to Biden. “This plan, if implemented without change, would unacceptably weaken the U.S. fleet even as China seeks to expand its military power and influence.”

Among the signatories of the letter: Mitch McConnell.

Back at Fancy Farm, the political roast in Kentucky, McConnell avoided the press. He ignored questions on his way in and out of the picnic and only hinted at his health in remarks at a local GOP breakfast.

“This is my 28th Fancy Farm, and I want to assure you, it’s not my last,” he said to rousing applause.

What he would have heard shortly after when I sat down to interview Beshear may solidify that plan to remain in office, at least as long as the Democrat is governor.

As Alex Burns and I reported in our book “This Will Not Pass,” Cotton researched the Senate succession laws in every state to make sure Republicans were positioned to benefit in the case of any vacancies.

In 2021, he came to McConnell and told the Kentuckian there was one state that posed a potential problem: McConnell’s own, where state law accorded the governor the right to fill any vacancy.

So at McConnell’s urging, Kentucky’s Republican state legislature that year passed a bill and overrode Beshear’s veto changing that law. Now, a Kentucky governor must appoint a senator of the same party as the departing lawmaker and that successor must come from a list presented by the executive committee of that state party.

Since McConnell’s freeze-up, though, there has been rampant speculation in Kentucky that Beshear would flout the new law, appoint a Democrat were the McConnell seat to come open and fight out the issue in the courts.

So I asked the Democratic governor — who, not coincidentally, is facing reelection this year against McConnell’s protege, state attorney general Daniel Cameron — directly: What would he do if there’s a Senate vacancy from Kentucky?

“I mean, it’s not vacant,” said Beshear. “I’ve talked to his people, he’s doing alright. He’s going to serve out his term.”

I asked the governor again.

“There’s not going to be a vacancy,” he said, again declining to answer. “That would be total speculation.”

Benjamin Johansen contributed research to this report.

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Author: By Jonathan Martin