Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, Faces the Press about the Upcoming Trump Presidency
President-elect Donald J. Trump has entered what seems to be uncharted territory for a man of wealth and privilege, one who is used to being the man in charge.
The truth is that being president of these United States does involve working with Congress. It is not a job in which a CEO speaks the word and his/her underlings jump to fulfill commands.
Even decisions that on their face appear to be at the sole discretion of the president are often negotiated behind the scenes in exchange for Congressional support on other decisions.
That is why it is important to pay attention to how Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, responds to media questions regarding controversial components of the agenda that Trump promoted during his presidential campaign.
On November 09, 2016, McConnell participated in a post-election news conference during which he answered questions from the press for about 18 minutes. In this post, I highlight much of McConnell’s Q & A with the press in an effort to understand a possible (probable?) tempering influence upon Trump’s often outlandish campaign promises.
First of all, McConnell seems to realize the importance of working with Senate Democrats; he realizes that a Senate Republican majority is not forever (and likely that the Senate Republican majority is a slim one). In this case, McConnell identified a member of the press, “Paul,” who had this question:
Senator, the last time there was a unified control of the White House and the Senate and the House, your belief was that the Democrats in 2009-10 acted too fast on their own, unilaterally, with no real bipartisan on stimulus, ACA, Dodd-Frank. How do you avoid those mistakes given the views of your voters, help your base voters right now?
McConnell: Well, let me just answer it, sort of, broadly. I think it’s always a mistake to misread your mandate, and frequently, new majorities think it’s going to be forever. Nothing is forever in this country; we have an election every two years right on schedule. We have had since 1788. And so, I don’t think we should act as if we’re going to be in the majority forever. We’ve been given a temporary lease on power, if you will, and I think we need to use it responsibly. I think what the American people are looking for is results. And to get results in the Senate, as all of you know, it requires some Democratic participation and cooperation, how we were able to do that during the first Obama tenure and the deals, for example, that I negotiated with Biden on three different occasions. And, we are going to be looking for bipartisan support, and I think overreaching after an election is, generally speaking, a mistake.
I kept McConnell’s stated intention of “bipartisan support” in mind as he answered questions concerned the filling of the vacancy on the Supreme Court and whether McConnell expects Democrats to block the appointment:
Well, it won’t surprise you to know that I’m not going to address what might happen in the context of a Supreme Court appointment. What we do know is the new president will fill the vacancy, and I expect it to be handled in the way these Court appointments are typically handled, and I would not anticipate any particular strategy in, that the Democrats might have employed to defeat it or what we might do in reaction to that.
Later during the press conference, the subject of the Supreme Court re-emerged:
Press: Senator McConnell, back to the Supreme Court issue. Could you just comment on how much advising and how much consenting you’ll be doing?
McConnell: Well, I was really pleased that the president-elect was already asking for our advice. As you know, many of us made suggestions when he put together a list of prospective nominees. He was, in effect, asking for our advice, and I think he will be open to that, and I, for one, intend to take advantage of it. I’ve got a few suggestions I’d like to make that I won’t mention to you, but I think he’s open to our suggestions about that. That’s good. That’s the way I think it ought to work.
Supreme Court appointments are negotiated between the president and Senate, with a Senate majority of those present on the day of the confirmation vote needing to approve the appointment. It is possible that every Republican senator is present for the confirmation vote and that everyone is unified in agreement regarding the nominee, but maybe not. So, it seems that McConnell would keep as much in mind as he offers his nominee suggestions to Trump. (To read about the nomination and confirmation processes, see here and here.)
Even though many assume that Trump will likely nominate multiple Supreme Court justices, as McConnell points out, midterm elections happen in two years, and such elections could alter a Republican Senate majority.
Changes in the configuration of the Senate could well affect which potential Supreme Court nominees are likely to be confirmed. Thus, absent a super majority in the Senate, some degree of bipartisan buy-in regarding Supreme Court nominees is to be expected.
McConnell also talked bipartisan support in reference to tax reform. McConnell said that he hasn’t had a chance to talk with Trump yet, but that he (McConnell) would like to see comprehensive tax reform, not just for corporations but “for most American businesses, which are not corporations.” McConnell continues by saying, “So, we need to have an agreement on what we’re advocating. …Hopefully, we can have some bipartisan agreement on it and make some progress for the country.”
As one might expect, the press asked McConnell questions regarding Donald Trump’s “wall.” From McConnell’s responses, one can discern that the Senate will not be supporting Trump’s wall-building campaign promise. It is interesting how McConnell tries to brush off the outlandish campaign promise of a president elected only the day before as “re-litigating the past”:
Press: In June, you expressed concerns about Donald Trump. His comments about Hispanics and potentially harming the Republican Party’s relationship with Hispanics, similar to the way Goldwater did with African Americans. I’m wondering if after last night, after this campaign, if you still share those concerns, number one. Number two, do you support his [Trump’s] central policy, again, to build a wall on the border of Mexico?
McConnell: Well, I’m not going to go back and re-litigate the events of the past. We have a new president. I’d like to see him to get off on a positive start, and I think we should look forward and not backward and kind of rehash and re-litigate the various debates we had both internally and with the Democrats over this year.
Press: What about the wall? It’s a simple question.
McConnell: We’re going to be talking to the president about his agenda. Border security is important; I think even our Democratic friends realize we haven’t done a very good job of that, and achieving border security is something I think ought to be high on the list.
Press: Do you have a personal preference on the wall?
McConnell: I want to try to achieve border security in whatever way is the most effective.
Short answer: The Trump extreme of a wall will be reconstructed as the more statesman-expected focus on “border security.” In trying to play off Trump’s wall-building as “a thing of the past,” McConnell is likely reflecting that he must now work with Trump and offer the appearance of solidarity even as McConnell will not openly agree to a ridiculous wall between the USA and Mexico.
The question of Trump’s extreme views on immigration also came up later in the press conference. The reality is that many individuals currently living in America are afraid for their futures. McConnell’s response revealed discomfort with the issue, again because Trump’s stance is more “reality-television” ugliness than statesmanlike consideration of the issue. However, I noticed that in McConnell’s response, his words about “discussing internally” were spoken quietly and thoughtfully, as though he realized that the public deserves some sort of answer and at least a small degree of reassurance that the Senate plans to confront Trump’s scary ideas on immigration:
Press: What do you say to undocumented immigrants in the country right now, who might be uncertain about what their futures are with Donald Trump elected president?
McConnell: Yeah, I’m not going to discuss the immigration issue today. We’ll be discussing it internally with the new administration in the coming months.
More on McConnell’s intent to work with Trump, which McConnell must do:
Press: Senator, can you characterize how you see the Senate majority’s relationship with President-elect Trump? Is it to be a partner? Is it to be a facilitator of his agenda? And, do you think he shares your perception of the role of Senate majority in his coming term?
McConnell: Well, I know he’s really happy we still have a Republican majority, and we look forward to working with him. I think most of the things that he’s likely to advocate, we’re going to be enthusiastically for. Where we have differences of opinion, I expect to discuss them privately and not sort of hashing them out in public. The goal will be to try to get on the same page, to try to turn the country in a different direction.
Look, we’ve had a tutorial here over the last eight years: Big government. Taxes. Regulation. Big debt. We know it doesn’t work. You do all of this, you get slow growth. So, in order to get the country going again, we need to undo much of that. And the good news is a lot of it was done by the president (Obama) by himself. So, we’re going to, I think, be enthusiastically supportive almost all the time, and, where we have differences, we’ll talk about them privately and see if we can work them out.
McConnell might intend to privately discuss differences with Trump; however, it remains to be seen how Trump will manage himself when he must negotiate and whether he will vent his displeasure on social (or other) media.
In discussing trade, McConnell notes that Trump cannot make unilateral trade agreements. He must have Congressional approval. A question on Trump’s plans for trade and McConnell’s response:
[Regarding Trump’s plans for trade,] well, you’ll have to ask him. But, TPA (Trade Promotion Authority) is still in place. If the next president wants to negotiate trade agreements, he has the opportunity to do that and to send it up [to Congress for approval or disapproval].
And regarding Trump and Russia, McConnell tries to play the question as “old news” even though it is a valid question related to a man who was elected only one day prior– and Trump’s intentions with Russia are very much on the minds of the American public:
Press: Do you expect to support President Trump’s stated goals of withdrawing from NATO and forging a closer alliance with Russia.
McConnell: Yeah, look, a, again, that’s, sort of, like [name of reporter who asked about the wall]’s question, sort of go back and re-litigate various things that were said during the past year. I want to look forward. I will say for myself, I think that the NATO alliance is every bit as important today as it ever was. I think Article Five means something: You attack any member of NATO, you have us to deal with. I want the Russians to understand that fully.
Interesting that McConnell says he speaks “for himself” but clearly is speaking for the USA– and against any thought of a unilateral arrangement that Trump might try to form with Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s affinity with Russia will be one of those *privately-discussed* issues to which McConnell alludes, to be sure. However, the bottom line is that it is Congress that has the power to declare war, not Trump; the president becomes Commander-in-Chief, directing the military, only after Congress declares war. A Trump-Putin alliance does not make Russia a US ally. Putin needs to be aware of that.
Thus, McConnell is willing to openly disagree with Trump on some issues. One reporter asked about congressional term limits. (Trump campaigned about getting rid of Congressional term limits.) McConnell responded, “We have term limits now. They’re called elections.” He added that congressional term limits “will not be on the agenda in the Senate.”
One issue about which Trump and other Republicans clearly agree: repealing Obamacare:
Press: Senator McConnell, what’s your plan on health care going forward? [Are you thinking of] repealing Obamacare right away?
McConnell: It’s a pretty high item on our agenda, as you know, and I would be shocked if we didn’t move forward to keep [to] our commitment to the American people. It is the single worst piece of legislation among many bad pieces of legislation passed in the first two years of the Obama presidency. The sooner that we can go in a different direction, the better.
Another member of the press asked about logistics related to “repeal and replacement” of Obamacare, to which McConnell responded:
You’re asking me questions you know that I’m not going to answer. All of that is underway. I think, let’s just stipulate that every single Republican thought that Obamacare was a mistake, without exception. That’s still our view, and you can expect us, with a new president who has the same view, to address that issue.
It seems that McConnell and Trump also agree on the climate:
Press: You say that there’s a lot of executive orders and regulatory actions that the president (Trump) will get rid of. Specifically, on the climate plan, the Clean Power Plan, do you think that he will just drop that? Sir, what’s your expectation, and what would you advise him to do?
McConnell: That would sure be my hope.
Press: Right away, or, what’s your…
McConnell: That would sure be my hope. Day one would be a good idea.
Regarding the “war on coal,” McConnell said that it was not legislative action that is the problem but instead unilateral action taken on the part of Obama to over-regulate, which McConnell said he believes is responsible for slow economic growth. McConnell added:
We’ll be working with the president to suggest what kind of unilateral action he can take to undo some of this regulatory overreach, which has slowed the economy so much. And coal is a good example of that.
Comments from McConnell regarding the ease of Trump’s undoing Obama’s “unilateral” decisions begs the question of what damage Trump might do unilaterally. However, it seems that much of what Trump advocated during his campaign does not fit in the unilateral category. It is possible that his push for school choice could be unilateral, but not via defunding Tile I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Congress would have to repeal ESSA in order to free up Title I funding, and it is not likely that Congress is willing to tamper with a recently-reauthorized ESSA. ESSA reauthorization is scheduled to happen in four years– which means that Congress does not have to grapple with it until around the 2020 presidential election.
In short, Trump could promote school choice in a similar manner to Obama’s Race to the Top– which did not erase No Child Left Behind.
One reporter asked McConnell to comment on Mike Pence. McConnell said Pence was well liked, and McConnell added this hope regarding Pence’s role as a liaison between the Senate and Trump:
I would just mention the way Vice President Cheney worked with us. He was at many of our Tuesday luncheons. And, you know, Dick Cheney was a classy guy who didn’t necessarily say anything all the time, but he was like a sponge absorbing what our concerns were, and he would, he acted almost like President Bush’s Senate liaison. And I’ve mentioned that to Vice President Pence, and I hope he will attend our Tuesday policy luncheons when he’s in town and kind of be our liaison between the administration and the Senate, much like Vice President Cheney was.
I think McConnell realizes the need for a buffer between the Senate and the renegade (bizarre?) ideas of a Trump used to operating as a CEO with the final word.
Press: Sir, President-elect Trump didn’t win the popular vote and a) does he have a mandate, and b) what is the mandate to do?
McConnell: We’ve been there before, you know. That happened in 2000, and the American people understand that if you get 270 electoral votes, you’re president. And I’d like to compliment Vice President Gore. You know, he conceded. He didn’t run around saying we ought to amend the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College. He accepted the results of the system that we have, and Secretary Clinton did the same thing, to her credit, this morning. So, the election is over. we know who won, and we’re going to move on from there and do the best we can for the American people.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
I’ll just add that I am glad that I live in a country with three branches of government and not just one man calling all of the shots.
God bless America.