Inside Donald Trump’s cacophony of crazy stands Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader has his hand firmly on the dial that determines presidential power, and for McConnell setting that dial is an exercise in pure partisanship.
He became the Senate majority leader when the Republicans regained control of the 114th Congress in 2015. With his eye on Republican control of the federal judiciary, McConnell blocked President Obama’s judicial nominations to lower federal courts by refusing to bring them to a Senate vote. The Kentucky Republican turned the dial of presidential power for Obama as close to zero as he could.
The big payoff came in 2016 when Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia and McConnell refused to move Garland’s nomination forward in the Senate. Republican Donald Trump took office as president in 2017 with a very high number of judicial vacancies to fill, along with the top prize of a Supreme Court seat, all thanks to McConnell. With a Republican in the White House, even incompetent Trump, McConnell brought the dial of presidential power to Spinal Tap’s legendary 11.
The Unitary Theory of the Executive is supported in some conservative circles and has found its way into recent Republican administrations. Popular in both Bush administrations and now on steroids in the Trump administration, it basically declares the president’s powers under Article II of the Constitution broad enough to give the president far-reaching control of the executive branch and diminishes Congress’s Article I powers to check the executive. As we see this theory of presidential power put into practice, it is the Senate majority leader who controls the level of presidential power.
McConnell has pushed hard and fast to allow Trump to fill those vacancies on the federal bench. Neil Gorsuch was sworn in to fill the vacant Scalia seat on April 10, 2017. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court’s swing vote, retired on July 10, 2018, and his seat was filled on October 6, 2018, by Brett Kavanaugh, pushing the Supreme Court perilously to the right, a triumph for McConnell.
The Republican Senate is now confirming lower court judges to the federal bench who refuse to affirm the landmark ruling against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Wendy Vitter, dodging such an affirmation during her confirmation hearing, was recently confirmed by the Senate as a federal district judge in Louisiana. Meanwhile, the Republican drumbeat steps up with draconian anti-abortion legislation in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri, with the goal to do the unthinkable and reverse Roe v. Wade, a long-standing precedent so critical to women. We see the handiwork of McConnell spinning that partisan dial.
McConnell has recently scored a new aluminum plant for his constituents in Ashland, Ky. Rusal, the Russian aluminum company partially owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, is investing $200 million in the Kentucky project. Mitch advocated for the successful lifting of sanctions against Rusal. Vitter’s husband, lobbyist David Vitter, a former Republican senator from Louisiana who had bit of a problem with prostitutes a while back, is also involved in this one. The Democrats want to know more.
Trump, meanwhile, did not know William Barr before he nominated him to be attorney general on December 7, 2018, one week after the death of George H.W. Bush. Given Barr’s service as AG for H.W. Bush, McConnell surely knew of Barr’s devotion to presidential power. Barr told Bush the Elder he didn’t need a congressional OK to invade Iraq. Bush also had Manuel Noriega arrested in Panama after Barr advised him. McConnell surely knew of Barr’s advice to Bush regarding the Iran-Contra pardons that brought down the investigation of an independent counsel to protect Bush as he left office in 1992.
The Washington Post provides an excellent account of William Barr’s service to George H.W. Bush in Tom Hamburger’s May 16 piece. McConnell knew exactly who Barr was when he pushed his nomination as Trump’s AG through the Republican Senate and later told us “case closed” in regard to the Mueller investigation. McConnell knew full well Barr would pull out all the stops to protect Trump from Congressional oversight and embark on a new unfounded investigation against Trump’s perceived enemies, those who did their jobs to protect us from Russian intrusion into our democracy. It was McConnell who prevented President Obama from informing the American people of that Russian intrusion in the fall of 2016 before they cast their votes for president.
McConnell also offers Trump protection against Articles of Impeachment from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives as Trump defies House Democrats’ legitimate efforts to conduct Constitutionally mandated oversight of the Executive. House Democrats are left with little recourse against McConnell’s reckless use of power as Senate majority leader.
With the presidential election of 2020 on the horizon we must recognize the need for a Democratic majority in the Senate. If McConnell or any other Republican leads the Senate in 2021, the dial determining presidential power will find its way to the bottom once again should a Democrat win the presidential election. In order to clean house after Trump, the Democrats must control Congress completely along with the White House. If not, Democratic voters, indeed the American majority, will find themselves frustrated yet again with the Republican minority holding progress back at every turn. Taking the Senate is an uphill fight for Democrats, but it is a fight we must not lose in 2020.
Susan SurfTone is a musician, former FBI agent, and regular contributor to The Advocate.