On Thursday, March 12th, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, could have insisted that he and his colleagues work through the weekend to hammer out an emergency aid package addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, he recessed the Senate for a long weekend, and returned home to Louisville, Kentucky. McConnell, a seventy-eight-year-old Republican who is about to complete his sixth term as a senator, planned to attend a celebration for a protégé, Justin Walker, a federal judge who was once his Senate intern. McConnell has helped install nearly two hundred conservatives as judges; stocking the judiciary has been his legacy project.
Soon after he left the Capitol, Democrats in the House of Representatives settled on a preliminary rescue package, working out the details with the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin. The Senate was urgently needed for the next steps in the process. McConnell, though, was onstage in a Louisville auditorium, joking that his opponents “occasionally compare me to Darth Vader.”
The gathering had the feel of a reunion. Don McGahn, Donald Trump’s former White House counsel, whom McConnell has referred to as his “buddy and co-collaborator” in confirming conservative judges, flew down for the occasion. So did Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose Senate confirmation McConnell had fought fiercely to secure. Walker, the event’s honoree, had clerked for Kavanaugh, and became one of his lead defenders after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault. McConnell is now championing Walker for an opening on the powerful D.C. Court of Appeals, even though Walker has received a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association, in part because, at the age of thirty-eight, he has never tried a case.
Another former Senate aide of McConnell’s, a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Gregory Van Tatenhove, also attended the Louisville event. His wife, Christine, is a former undergraduate scholar at the McConnell Center—an academic program at the University of Louisville which, among other things, hosts an exhibit honoring the Senator’s career. Recently, she donated a quarter of a million dollars to the center.
McConnell, a voracious reader of history, has been cultivating his place in it for many years. But, in leaving Washington for the long weekend, he had misjudged the moment. The hashtag #WheresMitch? was trending on Twitter.President Trump had declared a national emergency; the stock market had ended one of its worst weeks since the Great Recession. Nearly two thousand cases of covid-19 had already been confirmed in America.
Eleven days later, the Senate still had not come up with a bill. The Times ran a scorching editorial titled “The Coronavirus Bailout Stalled. And It’s Mitch McConnell’s Fault.” The Majority Leader had tried to jam through a bailout package that heavily favored big business. But by then five Republicans were absent in self-quarantine, and the Democrats forced McConnell to accept a $2.1-trillion compromise bill that reduced corporate giveaways and expanded aid to health-care providers and to hard-hit workers.
McConnell, who is known as one of the wiliest politicians in Washington, soon reframed the narrative as a personal success story. In Kentucky, where he is running for reëlection, he launched a campaign ad about the bill’s passage, boasting, “One leader brought our divided country together.” At the same time, he attacked the Democrats, telling a radio host that the impeachment of Trump had “diverted the attention of the government” when the epidemic was in its early stages. In fact, several senators—including Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut—had raised alarms about the virus nearly two months before the Administration acted, whereas Trump had told reporters around the same time that he was “not concerned at all.” And on February 27th, some three weeks after the impeachment trial ended, McConnell had defended the Administration’s response, accusing Democrats of “performative outrage” when they demanded more emergency funding.
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