McConnell loses the plot to Trump on Ukraine and immigration

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Thursday might be remembered as the day Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lost the plot, the message and his power to Donald Trump.

For the past few months, Mr McConnell has dispatched Senator James Lankford, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, to negotiate a deal with Democrats to add restrictions on immigration in exchange for more Ukraine aid to repel Russia’s aggression.

Republicans know Democrats would not normally agree to these types of restrictions if a Republican were president or Democrats would filibuster them if Republicans had the majority. So they are using the fact that Democrats desperately want money for Ukraine to extract as much as possible from Democrats.

But on Wednesday, Punchbowl News reported that Mr McConnell told the Senate Republican conference that “politics on this have changed” since Mr Trump wanted to run on immigration and “we don’t want to do anything to undermine him.”

Those remarks immediately threw the Senate Republican conference into chaos. Immediately, some Republicans said that Mr McConnell’s words were misinterpreted.

Mr Lankford later told reporters that essentially, Mr McConnell was giving historical context and that when negotiations began last year, the election had not yet begun, but now it has.

“But he was very clear, he's not making any recommendation,” he said. “He's not backing away from this. We're still working. I was not instructed by the leader to be able to stop working on this.”

Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who was initially part of the negotiations, sounded even more furious, calling the allegation that McConnell pulled out of negotiations “parallel universe s***.”

He later elaborated, telling reporters that Republicans who support Mr Trump have not told him the truth about the bill, which remember, does not even have text since it has been tied up in negotiations.

“I think we have to have people here who support Trump, who have endorsed President Trump, to go to him and tell him what a compelling case is for someone who is likely to be our next president United States,” he said. “Don't be a coward.”

This goes to a central problem for many Republicans: they hoped that the legislation would be done before the campaign season began. And they essentially hoped that they could hand Mr Trump these draconian immigration restrictions once he came back to the White House.

But doing so would mean letting Joe Biden sign the legislation, which would inevitably allow him to claim credit on addressing immigration when polling shows many Americans do not approve of his handling of it. At the same time, Republicans cannot credibly say that the influx of migrants is a crisis if they are waiting until this time next year.

“They call it a crisis and they [do] not want to act on it,” Democratic Senator Alex Padilla, who despite being a Latino from the border state of California has been part of the negotiations, told me. "They had to figure out what they really believe in what they're really stand for.”

Republican Senator John Cornyn, whose home state of Texas makes up half of the US-Mexico border, stressed the need to continue the negotiations and told reporters that the legislation would take the issue off the table for the election.

“President Trump, you know, obviously he's an important voice, but we have a job to do and we intend to do it,” Cornyn, who endorsed Trump this week, told me.

Senator Mitt Romney, who despite his moderate reputation was such a hawk on immigration in his 2012 presidential campaign that Mr Trump criticised his stance, told reporters that Mr McConnell was ambiguous in his words.

“I didn't know where he was leaning,” he said. “I listened to what he had to say. He said the campaign politics have changed and that the former president's campaign would prefer not having a border deal.”

The initial report and he-said-she-said represent a total collapse in Mr McConnell’s grip on the Republican conference. For years, Mr McConnell has been fastidious and frugal with his words. Longtime McConnell watchers have learned to follow what he does not say as much as what he does say. He served as a mirror image to Nancy Pelosi’s speakership: he could wrangle all of the unruly members of his flock and create a unified front to block Democratic legislation and remake the judiciary (though he never has been as effective at passing Republican priority legislation).

But he has not been able to clarify his message or correct the record. This has left the Senate Republican conference utterly rudderless.

And there is sign that Democrats are getting impatient.

Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from the rural state of Montana running for re-election, responded to a question from NBC News’s Sahil Kapur by saying “bull-” before catching himself to say “-loney.”

“There was a bipartisan group that worked together,” he said. “We need to get that deal done to secure the border. If they want to keep it as a campaign issue, I think they need to resign from the damn Senate.”

Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy, who along with Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema has been the Democrats’ point person in negotiations, seems at the end of his rope.

“It's very clear that there is a fight happening inside the Republican conference between those that want chaos at the border and those that want to actually solve the problem,” he said. “I hope that the group that wants to solve the problem wins. But that is a real time fight that is playing out.”