Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

McConnell’s ‘Conscience’ Crisis

He stood by as Team Trump tried to overturn the election. Even now he refuses to smack down the Big Lie.
January 1, 2021
Featured Image
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives for the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 09, 2020 in Washington, DC. As a response to the recent killings of unarmed black people by police, Democrats from the House and Senate introduced legislation Monday that would change the way law enforcement officers operate, use deadly force and be held accountable for wrongdoing. President Donald Trump opposes the legislation and it is unclear if Republicans will take up the measure in the Senate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

According to a New Years Eve report from Axios’s Jonathan Swan, on Thursday morning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately characterized Congress’s upcoming vote to certify Joe Biden’s election victory as “the most consequential I have ever cast” and told members of the GOP conference that they should treat it as “a vote of conscience.”

Keep in mind, this vote is supposed to be a formality.

There should be very little for Congress to do. Because the people voted. Then the governors of all fifty states (and the mayor of the District of Columbia) filed certificates confirming the choice of electors. Dozens of attempts to litigate and invalidate the states’ elections were rejected by state and federal judges. Then the Electoral College voted and the fifty states’ (and D.C.’s) vote certifications signed by the electors were mailed to the vice president. The January 6 congressional joint session is all but pro forma—a choreographed final step confirming a result we have all known for weeks.

Yet now, if Swan’s sources are to be believed, the Senate majority leader is saying the January 6 vote will be more momentous than any of the other votes he has cast in Congress.

Um, what?

More consequential than his votes to authorize war? To bail out Wall Street? To confirm Supreme Court justices?  To convict one impeached president and acquit another?

For months, Trump-skeptical establishment-type Republicans anticipated that McConnell, the second-highest-ranking Republican in Washington, would—in his own thin-lipped, mumbling way—somehow hold the line of rationality in Washington. And he could have. He could have used his considerable megaphone to rebut the lies and conspiracy theories. He could have called upon President Trump to concede and asked him to call off his batty lawyers and media minions. Instead, for more than five weeks after the result was clear, McConnell remained silent, before trepidatiously acknowledging that Joe Biden is the president-elect:

I don’t have any advice to give the president on this subject,” McConnell told reporters on [December 15]. “I said this morning, for me and on the basis of the way the system works, the decision by the Electoral College yesterday was determinative.” [Emphases added.]

Now he is giving in to the premise of the Big Lie, acting as if the routine certification of the election is a hard decision or some kind of agonizing struggle.

Why? Because President Trump, despite having no evidence whatsoever, has convinced a significant portion of the Republican base that the election was stolen from him. He is calling for his supporters to swarm the nation’s capital on the same day Congress will be counting the vote, hoping to put pressure on the legislature—an unprecedented action.

Some House Republicans predict that perhaps 140 of their colleagues will perpetuate that lie by refusing to legitimize Biden as president—a mass revolt against the orderly, routine finalization process with no precedent since the enactment of the Electoral Count Act of 1887.

The most strident Trumpists continue to rant, without evidence, that the election was fraudulently flipped to Biden. Others say they merely have questions about voter-fraud allegations and oppose Biden’s certification as a protest to the system. Anti-anti-Trumpers point to Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones’s 2005 objection to President Bush’s re-election, where they complained of “irregularities” and “disenfranchisement.”

However, the context couldn’t be more different: In 2004, the Democratic candidate John Kerry had conceded the election and wasn’t mounting a multipronged “Stop the Steal” campaign. Boxer and Tubbs Jones had no intent to overturn the election. Besides, Republicans back then derided the objection as a “travesty” and said that Boxer and Tubbs Jones were acting like sore losers and conspiratorial nutjobs. This time, the Republicans are carrying out the candidate’s wishes, aiding his delusional effort to overturn clear results, and playing to the loons on their side of the aisle.

Sure, Senator McConnell will probably vote to certify the election, just as he has privately called on his fellow Republican senators to do. But he is not raising his voice in public calling on Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley not to raise a formal objection on January 6, or telling the dozens of GOP House members why they shouldn’t either. Just like McConnell didn’t raise his voice when Trump started unfurling this lie in the wake of the election.

Those looking for meaningful public leadership from Senate Republicans—that is, aside from Mitt Romney—have nothing more to cling to than a Facebook post from Ben Sasse.

Since we hear a lot of talk these days about how, despite Team Trump’s post-election craziness, “the institutions have held,” it’s worth taking a moment to think clearly about just what that means.

On the positive side of the ledger, the election process—both via mail and in-person—went smoothly, especially considering the difficult conditions of the pandemic. There isn’t any evidence that anything significant went awry.

Not for lack of trying to find wrongdoing, either. Republican officials in the state of Georgia have counted their election results three times and found zilch.

Trump’s lawyers tried dozens and dozens of cases in court and got creamed.

The Supreme Court flat-out rejected Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s case alleging election fraud and seeking to overthrow several states’ election results.

Then-Attorney General Bill Barr, reporting on the findings of the FBI and U.S. attorneys, said “we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

The electors were able to meet and cast their votes despite “credible” threats of violence in some states that necessitated increased security. As mentioned above, all fifty states and D.C. certified and transmitted their results.

So what is that Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, and the rest of the Kraken Caucus know that all those other people don’t?

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

And Mitch McConnell says this is a hard question? A matter of “conscience”? Please.

That’s only true if the Senate Republicans don’t have one to begin with.

Amanda Carpenter

Bulwark political columnist Amanda Carpenter is a CNN contributor, author, and former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz and speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint.