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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Mitch McConnell marks his turf at top of Republican heap

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Credit: The Washington Post/Melina Mara

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has settled in as President Joe Biden's most important Republican adversary. McConnell's exchange of bile with Biden's defeated predecessor only reinforces the Kentucky senator's new place in the power game.

Given that role, McConnell's now-famous public shuffle on Donald Trump's second impeachment trial is easy to understand even for those on both sides who don't forgive it.

By voting to acquit Trump of inciting the U.S. Capitol insurrection, McConnell acted with the majority of his caucus, many of whom clearly had reason to fear backlash from state GOP bosses if they voted otherwise.

But by also condemning Trump's conduct, McConnell said out loud what some of those members might have wished to say — and made clear who now calls the partisan shots.

Normal politics can be the art of cutting things both ways, and McConnell keeps a tight grip on partisan power. Remember: He became a force in Washington long before Trump arrived, and he remains one now.

Criminally or not, Trump on Jan. 6 demonstrated his self-serving disloyalty, not only to the nation but to the party he took over nearly five years ago. That's what lay below McConnell's statement. In losing the election and then lying about it, Trump probably had cost Republicans the Senate majority. McConnell had no incentive to pretend respect for Trump.

Outside the Trump bubble, McConnell's declaration that Trump was "practically and morally responsible" for provoking the violence at the Capitol was taken as just a common-sense observation.

Predictably, the ex-president reacted with vague threats and urged McConnell's ouster. "Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First," Trump said in a statement.

Trump sounds willing to be as cynically divisive within the GOP as he was across the nation during his term. Democrats might wish to applaud his efforts, as some did when he practically discouraged Georgia Republicans from voting in the Senate runoff races last month.

True to the old form, Trump's latest tantrum included personal smears as well. He said McConnell had "no credibility on China because of his family’s substantial Chinese business holdings."

This will be parroted by the still faithful and helps obscure, for what it's worth, Trump's own ineffective posturing on China. Nobody will meaningfully answer why McConnell's wife Elaine Chao, whose family had the business dealings, remained Trump's transportation secretary for nearly four years.

None of this seems destined to shape what's ahead.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called attention to McConnell's positional two-step during a news conference. "I believe he [Trump] deserved to be impeached and he should have been convicted," Schumer said, quipping: "If you don’t believe me, you can ask Mitch McConnell."

One of the more relevant questions ahead is how Schumer will manage to push the Biden agenda with a razor-thin majority.

McConnell has no cause to downplay the degree to which his clout, in tandem with his members', survives in Trump's absence. The seven-term senator recently showed his influence in tough negotiations with Schumer that ended in an agreement over Senate power-sharing rules. The rest of the partisan tension will play out one step at a time, with McConnell rather confidently driving the opposition, regardless of Trump's efforts to undermine him.