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McConnell first significant crack in Trump's wall

Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell participates in

Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell participates in a news conference after a Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Credit: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Don't lose sight of the man behind the curtain: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Among Republicans, the Kentucky senator is as close as it gets to GOP royalty. What he says, Senate Republicans overwhelmingly follow. And he can predict the future, as he did in 2016 when he foretold Donald Trump would be president.

McConnell made his first public break with the president this week, when he distanced himself from the White House on the Ukraine controversy. In his tightly buttoned-lip way, McConnell contradicted the president, insisting the two never had a telephone conversation about the whistleblower's report about Ukraine. Trump, not shockingly, appears to have stretched the truth when he suggested that McConnell had agreed in a telephone call that the now-infamous conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect.”

The problem? McConnell says he doesn’t remember any such call.

McConnell also broke ranks with the White House after Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces, and the senator introduced a Senate resolution that is even tougher than one from the House, calling for troops to remain in Syria. According to insiders, McConnell is furious with Trump for the chaotic and impulsive decision-making process behind the pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria, leaving Russia and Turkey to fill the void. Of course, the White House partially reversed itself Friday: The Washington Post reported that Defense Secretary Mark Esper said tanks and "some mechanized forces" would stay in Syria to protect oil fields.

Lastly, McConnell seemed visibly uncomfortable with Trump’s use of the word “lynching” to express his opposition to the impeachment inquiry. McConnell went so far as to call it a “bad choice of words,” which is about as oppositional as he gets.

Republicans will start to peel away from Donald Trump as soon as they inevitably reckon with his disastrous behavior. Their leader is sending a distress signal. 

Tara D. Sonenshine, a former U.S. undersecretary of state in the Obama administration, advises students at The George Washington University.