Mitch McConnell has been attacked by a key Trump ally and told to repair his relationship with the former president or face failure as Senate Republican leader.
The move by Lindsey Graham comes amid a rumbling dispute between McConnell and Donald Trump, whose grip on the party remains near-total despite his impeachment for inciting the deadly Capitol attack in service of his lie that his defeat by Joe Biden was caused by electoral fraud.
In the most recent round of the contest, McConnell sided with Mike Rounds, a South Dakota senator who said Biden won the election.
“If you want to be a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with Donald Trump,” Graham, of South Carolina, told Fox News on Wednesday night.
Acquitted in his second impeachment trial, Trump remains free to run for office.
“He’s the most consequential Republican since Ronald Reagan,” Graham said. “It is his nomination if he wants it, and I think he’ll get re-elected in 2024.
“I like Senator McConnell, he worked well with President Trump to get a bunch of judges including three supreme court justices on the bench, they got the tax cuts passed working together.
“But here’s the question: can Senator McConnell effectively work with the leader the Republican party, Donald Trump?
“I’m not gonna vote for anybody that can’t have a working relationship with President Trump, to be a team to come up with an America First agenda, to show the difference between us and liberal Democrats, to prosecute the case for Trump policies … because if you can’t do that, you will fail. I will tell you that.”
Graham’s comment prompted criticism, one columnist calling it “a spineless cop-out”.
It is a year since Graham apparently broke with Trump – a man he once said would “destroy” the Republican party and who relentlessly abused Senator John McCain, Graham’s close friend who died in 2018.
After the Capitol attack, Graham seemed ready to abandon his idol.
“I’m out,” he said.
But he was soon back in, telling Axios: “Donald Trump was my friend before the riot. I’m trying to keep a relationship with him after the riot. I still consider him a friend. What happened was a dark day in American history. And we’re going to move forward.”
He also called Trump “sort of a cross between Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan and PT Barnum”. Helms, a North Carolina senator, was a segregationist and “unabashed racist”. PT Barnum was a controversialist and circus impresario.
McConnell and Trump have been at odds for some time. Their latest spat began after Trump called Rounds “crazy or just stupid” for saying Biden won.
McConnell joined Mitt Romney of Utah and others in defending Rounds, telling CNN: “I think Senator Rounds told the truth about what happened in the 2020 election. And I agree with him.”
John Thune of South Dakota – a contender to replace McConnell should it come to a vote – welcomed Rounds to “the club” of Republicans abused by Trump.
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