Politics

Mitch McConnell, Still Playing the Long Game

Trump revelations, FBI director search, don't rattle majority leader

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not allow the latest news about President Donald Trump to knock him off message. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

BY JASON DICK AND JOE WILLIAMS, CQ ROLL CALL

It’s difficult to get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to play anything but “The Long Game,” the Kentucky Republican’s political strategy, encapsulated by his 2016 memoir of the same name.

On Tuesday, Capitol Hill was still consumed with the bombshell news from the White House, that President Donald Trump disclosed classified information to Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting, followed by shifting denials and justifications from the administration and bipartisan expressions of concern from lawmakers.

McConnell started the day with an interview on Bloomberg TV with a succinct message about the daily conflagrations from the White House. “I think it would be helpful if the president spent more time on things we’re trying to accomplish and less time on other things,” he said matter-of-factly.

A surprise push

During the same interview, he said he put in a plug with Trump for Merrick Garland, the Supreme Court nominee McConnell refused to so much as grant a hearing for last year, to be FBI director. 

“It may surprise people. But he has a deep background in criminal law,” he said. “And I think it would make it clear that President Trump would continue the tradition at the FBI of having an apolitical professional.”

McConnell’s words for Garland, pushed by surrogates and finally the majority leader himself, showed the majority leader’s focus on political interests and messages of his choosing.

Garland is the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and his leaving that post, widely viewed as one of the most powerful judicial positions outside of the Supreme Court, would give Trump an opportunity to fill the slot with a conservative of his choosing. 

Also, McConnell’s chief lieutenant, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, was interviewed over the weekend for the FBI job. McConnell’s advocacy of someone like Garland sent an unmistakable message to both Cornyn and the White House that Cornyn’s services may lie elsewhere, notably the Senate. 

If Cornyn had left, it also would have launched a potentially messy special election in Texas in an unpredictable political environment. 

That didn’t mean the Garland suggestion didn’t earn the praise of GOP senators who view Garland as someone that could bring about significant bipartisan backing.

“I think there would be a lot of Democratic support for him,” Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford said. “I would have no issue with Merrick Garland.”

Lankford has a more intimate connection with him than others; Garland was a federal prosecutor in the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing.

Regardless, the White House signaled it had no interest in Garland, and the former high court nominee said he wasn’t interested. Then Cornyn came out with a statement saying he was staying put in the Senate. 

“Now more than ever the country needs a well-credentialed, independent FBI Director,” Cornyn said. “I’ve informed the administration that I’m committed to helping them find such an individual, and that the best way I can serve is continuing to fight for a conservative agenda in the U.S. Senate.”

Where’s Cornyn?

At the Senate Republican leaders’ traditional Tuesday press conference, Cornyn was nowhere to be seen, odd because he is a fixture there with the rest of McConnell’s leadership team.

That did not go unnoticed by the media, who, after McConnell and his team talked about what they said were the shortcomings of the 2010 health care law and the Senate’s need to move a repeal and replacement measure, wanted to discuss anything but. 

“Where is the distinguished Republican whip? And what does that mean about who’s going to be the new FBI director now that he has withdrawn his consideration?” Fox News’ Chad Pergram asked with the first question. 

McConnell was relatively unfazed. He did not say where Cornyn was, and reiterated his support for Garland.

Pressed by another reporter as to whether he was concerned about Trump’s handling of sensitive information, McConnell paused and said simply, “No.”

After a few more Trump-related questions, McConnell and his crew ended the session. 

Smoke and mirrors

For many Democrats, bringing up Garland at all was a smokescreen they saw right through, immediately.

Garland “does an excellent job on the D.C. Circuit bench,” Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said. “As much as Leader McConnell might want an opening on that bench, I can’t imagine he’d want to give up what is a very important role that he has.”

Washington Sen. Patty Murray called for an independent FBI director “that we can all be confident in.”

“I think to use this as a political ploy on a sitting judicial judge is playing politics,” she said.

The Garland scenario, as craven as some people in the Capitol think the suggestion was, underscores the tricky politics of selecting the next FBI director, who could face a toxic confirmation battle.

Democrats say nothing less than a special prosecutor for the Russia imbroglio, including the circumstances surrounding the firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey, will do, and the relative lack of legislation on the floor leaves the Senate with little left to do except process nominations. 

“We don’t have the luxury of just moving on. We have to spend time on this because, first of all, we have the fundamental question of the Russians interfering in our elections and how we prevent that from happening again,” Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said.

Another bombshell

And even as the Senate was wrapping up its business, more news rocked the Capitol, this time a report by The New York Times stating that Trump asked Comey to end his probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and his connections to Russia.

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer came to the floor to speak about the latest report, even as other senators headed for the exits. 

“Concerns about our national security, the rule of law, the independence of our nation’s highest law enforcement agencies are mounting. The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate, history is watching,” the New York Democrat said. 

The White House issued a quick, flat denial of the Times story. 

As for McConnell, moments before Schumer came to the floor, he set up Wednesday’s floor schedule, a vote to cut off debate on the nomination of Rachel Brand to be associate attorney general, a curt wrapup of the chamber’s day. 

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