Two new blockbuster scoops about President Donald Trump’s relations with Russia — combined with fresh signs that Trump will drag out the government shutdown indefinitely — should renew our focus on the quiet but critical role that Mitch McConnell has played in enabling the damage that Trump is doing to the country on so many fronts.
As the shutdown drags into its fourth week, causing cascading impacts around the country, The Post reports that pressure is now likely to intensify on the Senate majority leader to allow votes on measures reopening the government. Three Senate Republicans have already called for a reopening, and as one GOP strategist puts it, a few more coming out "changes the calculus" for McConnell.
Meanwhile, thanks to new reporting over the weekend, the basic question of whether Trump has at pivotal moments acted in Russia’s interests, to the detriment of U.S. interests — is being thrust to the forefront with new urgency.
This should cause us to revisit the role that McConnell played during the campaign in preventing members of Congress from showing a united public front against Russian sabotage of the election.
The New York Times reports that after Trump fired former FBI director James Comey, FBI officials began an investigation into whether he'd been working for Russian interests. The concern was that, in obstructing the FBI's inquiry, Trump might have made it harder to determine what Russia had done during the election — thus helping Russia skirt accountability for an attack on U.S. democracy.
As the FBI general counsel at the time bluntly put it, a crucial theoretical question was whether "the president of the United States fired Jim Comey at the behest of Russia," impairing an effort to determine the scope of a "threat to national security."
Meanwhile, The Post reports that Trump has gone to great lengths to conceal his private discussions with Russian president Vladimir Putin from even his own advisers. The result: "there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump's face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years."
Revisiting McConnell's role during the campaign
One shadow narrative unfolding in the background over the last two years has been the gradual discovery of just how broad the scope of Russian sabotage of the 2016 election really was. This has made certain events during the campaign appear more serious in retrospect.
In September of 2016, as The Post has reported, top Obama administration officials privately asked senior congressional leaders in both parties to go public with a united front against Russian interference. But McConnell refused, claiming (in The Post's words) that "he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics." McConnell also questioned the intelligence demonstrating Russian sabotage.
We have since learned a great deal about the Russian interference that McConnell raised doubts about. Special counsel Robert Mueller's indictments of Russian nationals laid out a very detailed plot to corruptly swing the election. More recently, Senate Intelligence Committee reports demonstrated the extraordinary reach of the Russian disinformation campaign, which included elaborate efforts to divide the country on racial and cultural lines.
Remember, it was widely known during the election that some sort of Russian interference efforts were taking place. Candidate Trump was downplaying the seriousness of these efforts, or dismissing them altogether.
It's hard to know how much of a difference it would have made if congressional leaders went public with bipartisan acknowledgment and condemnation of the Russian interference effort. But it certainly could have helped educate the public and shed light on just how indefensible Trump's downplaying of Russian sabotage really was. Of course, that might have hurt Trump's candidacy, so for McConnell, it was apparently a nonstarter.
Now we discover that there is fresh reason to wonder just how deep Trump's loyalties to Putin and Russia ran throughout that whole period. What we still do not know is how detailed and convincing a briefing McConnell and other officials received on what was happening. We should revisit this.
What's more, we're also learning that in the view of intelligence officials, Trump's obstruction of justice efforts were potentially more damaging to the country than we thought. They concluded that by firing Comey, Trump was making it harder to learn the truth about Russian sabotage of our democracy irrespective of whether there was any collusion.
In retrospect, failure to protect Mueller looks worse
This raises new questions about another McConnell action: The refusal to hold votes on legislation protecting the special counsel. In fairness, Trump has still not moved successfully against Mueller. But McConnell scuttled efforts to protect Mueller even though Trump privately tried to fire him twice. There's still time for Trump to act, and passing such protections - which the Democratic House would support - would plainly make any such action, and the damage it would cause, less likely.
There's also a forward-looking dimension here. As the Lawfare podcast notes, if FBI officials opened a separate investigation into whether Trump was obstructing the probe to help Russia, it's plausible McConnell and other congressional officials were briefed on this. That would make the failure to act to shield Mueller worse. We need to know more about this, too.
On the shutdown front, McConnell continues to refuse votes on bills reopening the government that have already passed the House. McConnell claims there's no point, because Trump wouldn't sign them. But this actively shields Trump from having to veto bills funding the government, which would make it much harder for him to keep holding out. Worse, McConnell privately told Trump in December he has no leverage and no endgame here, meaning McConnell knows full well that not forcing Trump's hand leaves us adrift with no exit in sight.
Meanwhile, what happens if Trump declares a national emergency to build his wall, a nakedly autocratic act that will further damage our institutions? Under the National Emergencies Act, both chambers of Congress have the authority to reverse such a declaration. Will McConnell's Senate take such a step, or will he allow Trump to rampage forward on this, too?
In much discussion of all these matters, there is a terrible rhetorical habit of treating GOP conduct towards Trump as mere passive acquiescence. In fact, this is better seen as an active enabling, on one front after another. And we are likely to learn much more about just how damaging this has been soon enough.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog. He joined The Washington Post in 2010, after stints at Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine and the New York Observer.