McConnell and Trump teams discuss possible endorsement behind the scenes

Over the last couple of months, advisers to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have had discussions with former President Donald Trump’s team about securing an endorsement of the GOP presidential front-runner, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The conversations, which were reported by the New York Times, have been underway since early January between Josh Holmes, a longtime key McConnell adviser, and Chris LaCivita, Trump’s campaign manager, about moving past their icy relationship in an attempt to unite the party behind Trump as the nominee.

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The revelation of the discussions comes on the heels of Trump’s win in the South Carolina primary, putting him one step closer to the GOP nomination. Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is Trump’s lone remaining challenger in the race, but she has not yet been able to win any of the nominating contests thus far. 

An endorsement from McConnell would be a significant turn of events, as the two have had a fraught relationship. The 2020 presidential election, which Trump claimed, without evidence, was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud, was a turning point in his relationship with McConnell. Trump began criticizing the Kentucky senator after he recognized President Joe Biden’s victory. 

Relations further soured after McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. At the time, McConnell told allies he was considering voting to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, but he decided not to do so.

The feud escalated after the midterm elections when McConnell openly blamed Trump for tarnishing the party’s image among critical swing and independent voters and for elevating flawed candidates in Senate primaries. In response, Trump pushed Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) to challenge McConnell’s leadership, but the Kentucky Republican was comfortably reelected to lead the Senate GOP conference.

But at a Fox News town hall last week, Trump signaled that the Senate minority leader could be falling in line to support him soon.

“He’ll probably end up endorsing me. I don’t know that I can work with him,” Trump said.

McConnell and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), the leader of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, are the only remaining holdouts of the GOP leadership team who have yet to endorse the former president.  

“I know McConnell’s team is in a tough spot. They’re sort of damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” said a Republican consultant, who asked not to be named. “I feel like a Trump endorsement at this rate from McConnell would tarnish his legacy. He’s sort of been the adult in the room for so many of us, so I think it would be a disappointment.”

The consultant pointed to how Trump has used his influence to tank proposals backed by McConnell, such as the highly anticipated immigration deal in the Senate that included aid to Ukraine and the foreign aid bill that did pass in the Senate but that the former president and his allies are trying to kill in the House.

“Basically the former president is trying to undo all the good work McConnell is doing or has already done. For the GOP Senate leader to endorse Trump now just is confusing,” the person said.

More than two-thirds of Senate Republicans have already endorsed Trump, including a number of lawmakers who had previously been critical of the ex-president. 

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the No. 2 Senate Republican who has openly feuded with the former president in the past, endorsed Trump on Sunday. The South Dakota senator enraged Trump in December 2020 when he criticized efforts by House GOP lawmakers to overturn the results of the presidential election.

Trump bashed the South Dakota senator, calling him a “RINO” (short for “Republican in name only”) on Twitter. The former president attempted to lobby Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) to launch a primary campaign against Thune, but she did not do so. Thune appears to have decided to put the past aside, however.

“The primary results in South Carolina make clear that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for president in this year’s pivotal presidential election. The choice before the American people is crystal clear: It’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden,” Thune said in a statement.

Additionally, those viewed as potential successors to McConnell, which include Thune and Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), a former member of leadership, and John Barrasso (R-WY), have all endorsed Trump. 

“Does Trump need McConnell’s endorsement — absolutely not! Would it be nice? Sure, it’s nice to have, not a need to have,” said a Republican operative who has done some work with the Trump campaign. “So much of the party views the Senate minority leader as irrelevant and not representative of the Republican electorate,” the person said, who asked to remain anonymous to reflect candidly on the situation. 

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McConnell’s Senate term expires at the end of 2026, and his term as Republican leader expires at the end of 2024. He has not said whether he will run for the leadership position again.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has been encouraging the two to put their differences aside for the good of the party. “I’m encouraging the Republican Party to unite behind President Trump. It will take all of us working together to win the Senate and defeat Joe Biden in November,” Daines said in a statement provided to the Washington Examiner.

A McConnell spokesman declined to comment.

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