The Back Channel Talks to Secure McConnell’s Endorsement of Trump - The World News

The Back Channel Talks to Secure McConnell’s Endorsement of Trump

Donald J. Trump and Mitch McConnell haven’t said a word to each other since December 2020.

But people close to both men are working behind the scenes to make bygones of the enmity between them and to pave the way for a critical endorsement of the former president by the one Republican congressional leader who has yet to offer one, according to three people familiar with the conversations who were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

Assuming it happens, Mr. McConnell’s endorsement of Mr. Trump would have enormous symbolic value to the former president, giving him the embrace of the last holdout of Republican power whose rejection of him represents the final patch of unconquered territory in Mr. Trump’s march to the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

The support of Mr. McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky and the chamber’s minority leader, would also carry huge value in signaling to an entire class of donors and Trump-resistant Republican elites that it’s acceptable to get behind the party’s expected nominee — no matter their misgivings. This is no small thing, given that Mr. Trump has been forced to spend more than $50 million already on legal bills, and the groups supporting him are expected to be vastly outspent by President Biden’s operation.

The secretive conversations between the Trump and McConnell camps have been happening between key advisers to both men who have known and worked with each other for more than 20 years: Chris LaCivita, a top campaign adviser to Mr. Trump, and Josh Holmes, a confidant and longtime political strategist for Mr. McConnell.

Since around the time of the Iowa caucuses last month, Mr. LaCivita and Mr. Holmes started making more of a concerted effort to trade information — particularly about Mr. Trump’s Senate endorsements — and to create an opening for a more productive working relationship.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell were made aware of this back channel between the two camps. By late January, Mr. Trump had told people close to him that he expected Mr. McConnell would endorse him.

Mr. McConnell has always said he’ll endorse the nominee of the Republican Party, even when pressed specifically about Mr. Trump, whom he had described as “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. But when his likely endorsement happens is a matter of debate.

Mr. Trump faces his first criminal trial in late March and is eager to consolidate every faction of the party and its donor class behind him as soon as possible. That would be long before a nomination is cemented at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee in July.

“President Trump is the presumptive nominee and it is time for the entire party to coalesce behind him to defeat Crooked Joe Biden,” Mr. Trump’s communications director, Steven Cheung, said in a statement to The New York Times when asked about the private conversations between Mr. LaCivita and Mr. Holmes.

“Senior members of the campaign have had many conversations,” Mr. Cheung added, “but only engage with those who are actually willing to fight for America First principles and to take back the White House.”

A McConnell spokesman, Doug Andres, declined to comment.

With his primary victory over Nikki Haley in her home state of South Carolina on Saturday, Mr. Trump has now swept through all of the first voting states with comfortable margins, and polls show him leading the more than a dozen Super Tuesday contests.

He already has the backing of the House speaker, Mike Johnson, and on Sunday he was endorsed by Senator John Thune of South Dakota, who is Mr. McConnell’s deputy and No. 2 in the Senate Republican leadership.

Senator Steve Daines of Montana, the leader of the Senate Republican campaign arm, has been privately encouraging the two camps to move toward reconciliation, according to two people familiar with his engagement. Asked about this, Mr. Daines said in a statement, “I’m encouraging the Republican Party to unite behind President Trump. It will take all of us working together to win the Senate and defeat Joe Biden in November.”

Since the new year, both the Trump and McConnell teams have made an effort to avoid open warfare. It’s been a while since Mr. Trump has demeaned Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, as “Coco Chow” or as Mr. McConnell’s “China-loving wife.” Ms. Chao, who was born in Taiwan, had served in Mr. Trump’s cabinet as transportation secretary, but she resigned a day after the attack on the Capitol, calling it “a traumatic and entirely avoidable event.”

When the Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked Mr. Trump directly about Mr. McConnell at a town hall last week, Mr. Trump criticized the Senate minority leader, but gently by Mr. Trump’s standards.

“He’ll probably end up endorsing me. I don’t know that I can work with him,” Mr. Trump told Ms. Ingraham. “He gave away trillions of dollars that he didn’t have to, trillions of dollars. He made it very easy for the Democrats.”

To any normal ear, with any normal politician, that would have amounted to a scathing attack. But compared with the kinds of things Mr. Trump has previously said about Mr. McConnell — including regular comparisons to feces — these comments were interpreted by McConnell allies as punches being pulled.

Still, Mr. McConnell has watched in recent weeks as a bipartisan immigration bill that he had pushed for died, with Mr. Trump egging on those lawmakers who helped kill it. The funding for Ukraine to combat Russia is a particularly significant priority for Mr. McConnell, who views it as part of his legacy, and he used his capital to push through a national security spending package after the earlier bill collapsed. But the episode further exposed the raw nerves that exist between Mr. McConnell and some of his colleagues.

The relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell was never warm and probably never will be. They despise each other, and Mr. McConnell was appalled by Mr. Trump’s rise in 2016. But Mr. McConnell is nothing if not practical and during Mr. Trump’s presidency he set aside his own contempt for Mr. Trump and they worked together to pass a major tax cuts law and to confirm a record number of federal judges. Mr. McConnell’s crowning achievement was working with Mr. Trump to transform the Supreme Court — confirming three conservative justices who have gone on to achieve longstanding Republican goals such as overturning Roe v. Wade.

The disastrous and deadly aftermath of the 2020 election shattered whatever existed of their relationship.

Mr. McConnell came to view Mr. Trump as a dangerous liability after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the loss of two critical Senate races in Georgia for which he blamed the former president’s destructive behavior. He told people close to him that he never expected to talk to Mr. Trump again. And he told Senate colleagues that he was seriously considered voting to convict Mr. Trump in his second impeachment trial, but ultimately decided against it.

On Feb. 13, 2021, in a speech on the Senate floor to explain his decision not to convict on constitutional grounds, Mr. McConnell laid out what amounted to his own indictment of Mr. Trump.

“The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president,” he said.

Mr. McConnell said that day that he thought the criminal justice system was a more appropriate venue to hold Mr. Trump accountable for his actions leading up to Jan. 6 and that Mr. Trump is “still liable for everything he did while he was in office.” Read today, that statement seems like an artifact from a political party that no longer exists.

Two weeks after he gave that speech, in late February 2021, Mr. McConnell predicted on Fox News that the 2024 presidential election cycle would be a “wide-open race.” When the interviewer, Bret Baier, pushed him on whether he would support Mr. Trump if he came back to capture the Republican nomination, Mr. McConnell, who at that time thought Mr. Trump was a problem of the past, replied: “The nominee of the party? Absolutely.”

Throughout 2021 and 2022, whenever Mr. McConnell was asked in private about Mr. Trump, he would assure his audience that the best way to handle the former president was to ignore him rather than to attack him head-on, as Liz Cheney was doing.

It was not only a convenient answer but, as Mr. McConnell saw it, a politically necessary one. Mr. Trump was still the most popular Republican in the country. And Mr. McConnell oversaw a conference of senators who mostly wished Mr. Trump would disappear but who also knew that their political survival depended on their staying on the good side of the party’s angry MAGA base. Public deference to Mr. Trump became the price of keeping their jobs.

In recent months, as it became obvious that Mr. Trump appeared likely to win the G.O.P. nomination for a third time, Mr. McConnell assured his colleagues that he would do whatever it takes to unify the party and win back control of the Senate.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *