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Bill Straub: Trying to figure out Mitch McConnell and apologizing for being too soft on him over the years

What happened to Mitch McConnell?

It’s a question that has been bugging me and many others for years now. What transformed the Senate Republican leader, a seemingly earnest, hardworking lawmaker from Louisville into a political animal who has repeatedly in recent times brought disgrace to not only the legislative body he represents but, to a great extent, the republic as a whole?

This is the man who refused to work in concert with newly-elected President Barack Obama in 2008, rendering the recovery from a monumental economic catastrophe even more difficult than it should have been. Rather than pitch in and help the Democratic leader like previous opposition leaders – think Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-IL, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – McConnell was motivated only by the desire to keep Obama from securing a second term, an endeavor that ended in failure.

And it’s the same man who in 2013 blocked three Obama nominations to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, considered the nation’s second most powerful court, and made it clear GOP lawmakers would refuse to consider confirming any Democratic nominee just because they could. That forced then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, to change Senate rules and eliminate the filibuster for all judicial nominees other than those for the Supreme Court.

McConnell, of course, howled like a scalded cat. But when Democrats threatened to filibuster President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the high court last year, McConnell blithely disposed of the SupCo filibuster rule to clear the way.

Mitch McConnell (Photo by Reuters)

Those are just obvious examples. The result is that McConnell, in some quarters, has been credited with being some sort of political genius, pulling levers that result in the success of his own agenda. That analysis fails to note those same levers were available to those who preceded him as both majority and minority leader and they refused to pull them, realizing the sort of scheming he undertook wasn’t kosher and it would destroy any remaining comity that existed in the upper chamber, a consequence that has proven all too true.

And, of course, a book could be written about McConnell’s refusal to consider Obama’s nomination of U.S. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016, keeping that vital position open for more than a year. That by itself renders him responsible for one of the darker chapters in Senate history.

Notice of McConnell’s unctuous and damaging maneuverings was raised anew recently by a couple of developments. Greg Miller, national security correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of a newly published book, The Apprentice, told CNN about a confrontation in 2016 involving McConnell and then CIA Director John Brennan.

The CIA learned at some point in 2016 that Russia, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, was involving itself in the U.S. presidential election in Trump’s behalf over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Miller takes it from there:

“Brennan sets in motion a series of private briefings with all congressional leaders. It’s really an unusual crazy moment in our history. He’s trying to get their attention. Trying to grab them by the collar.

“He’s meeting with McConnell and McConnell is basically telling him, ‘You’re telling us Russia is trying to help elect Trump. If you try to come forward with this, I’m not going to sign on. I’m not going to sign on with any public statement that would condemn Russian interference but I will condemn you and the Obama administration for trying to mess up this election.”

Since then the nation has learned about the Russian ploy. It remains a danger to this day. Breaking this down into its essential elements, McConnell was informed by an agency of the United States government that a hostile foreign power was corrupting American sovereignty. With that information in hand, McConnell sided with the hostile foreign power.

No matter how far one might go in defending McConnell, there’s no way to rationalize his action. There’s placing party over country. Then there’s this.

Now, in addition, McConnell is utilizing the slimy methods he developed over the years to get Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh has proved himself unworthy of the position, essentially vowing to seek revenge on those Democrats who have opposed him, an untenable position for any nominee to take.

The facts behind the Kavanaugh controversy are well known. Christine Blasey Ford dispatched an anonymous letter that wound up in the hands of Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, asserting that Kavanaugh sexually abused her while both were in high school.

Ford’s identity ultimately was determined. She appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and testified about the incident, which Kavanaugh denied. Senate Republicans thereupon attempted to rush a vote on the nomination without properly looking into Ford’s claims or the claims of other women who stepped forward with similar stories. Only a few reluctant Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Flake, of Arizona, a committee member, balked, forcing what has become a cursory FBI background probe.

McConnell has endlessly been complaining about Democratic stalling tactics even though the FBI inquiry was forced by fellow Republicans. He has referred to those who are anti-Kavanaugh as leftists, even though most are simply women understandably tired of being abused by entitled white men. Limits were placed on who the FBI could contact, a move that justifiably led to claims of a whitewash.

Of course, all that led to McConnell getting huffy.

“In short, Democrats’ mishandling of Dr. Ford’s letter opened the floodgates for this deluge of uncorroborated, unbelievable mud,’’ McConnell said in a floor speech. “And the mudslide was cheered on, and capitalized on, at every turn, by the far left that has been so eager to stop this nomination. Just politics? I don’t think so.’’

He’s right that this isn’t “just politics.” It’s about women standing up to the patriarchy and insisting that their claims be taken seriously, something McConnell refuses to do. The only way to clear Kavanaugh for a seat on the highest court in the land is through a thorough background check that fails to substantiate assertions made by Ford and the other women who have no reason to lie about their encounters.

McConnell’s way of addressing questions about Kavanaugh is to shove him through the nomination process before other claims appear after a brief FBI inquiry that will gloss over the issue.

That’s how Mitch McConnell listens to women.

Listen, I’ve covered Mitch McConnell on-and-off for more than 30 years. I remember writing a story of his 1984 election victory over incumbent Sen. Walter “Dee’’ Huddleston, D-Elizabethtown, that started out, “The Kentucky Republican Party, which has slept for as long as Rip Van Winkle, awoke with a vengeance Tuesday…’’ I was standing next to him in New Orleans in 1988 at the Republican National Convention when an aide whispered in his ear that GOP presidential nominee George H.W. Bush had chosen Sen. Dan Quayle, R-IN, as his running mate and the look of shock and dismay that quickly crossed his face.

I remember him being very pleased when he was appointed to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that dealt with foreign affairs, providing him entry into an arena that he desired to delve into.

Back then McConnell was fairly mainstream. The only issue that really drew his attention was campaign finance and his battles with the late Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, who wanted to reform the system. But he voted in the same manner as your average Republican senator, failed to introduce any major bill that became law and represented the Commonwealth in a fair to middling manner.

That all began to change in January 2007 when he succeeded former Sen. Trent Lott, R-MS, as GOP leader. Republicans were in the minority then and, under McConnell, the party turned belligerent and antagonistic. It only grew worse when he became majority leader in January 2015.

I’m not the only one who noticed. Norm Ornstein, the respected political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, noted recently, “If we ever restore our system and the history of this era is written, Mitch McConnell will be the number one villain. Not just what he did to the Senate and the Courts. Blackmailing Obama to let the Russians continue to distort the election without public knowledge.”

We know the impact of McConnell’s tenure. We just don’t know the why.

I want to conclude by offering an apology. Like I said, I covered McConnell for better than 30 years. During most of that time, I obviously wasn’t hard enough on him. I frankly don’t think any of the Kentucky-based reporters were, but I can’t speak for them. And those presenting McConnell today as some kind of wizard, without regard to the harm he is causing the nation, are performing a disservice.

So I apologize for my role in this mess. I was too soft. And now we find ourselves with the second most powerful person in the U.S. government who has brought dishonor to himself, the Senate and the nation.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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