Democratic White House hopefuls who are divided over whether to impeach Donald Trump agreed on one solution: Mitch McConnell would take the blame if the Senate cleared the president.
Over the past week, Democrats have derided the Senate majority leader as “Moscow Mitch,” accusing him of soft-pedaling the threat posed by Russia and blocking bills aimed at thwarting foreign interference in U.S. elections, despite warnings from intelligence officials and former special counsel Robert Mueller.
And on the primary debate stage in Detroit Wednesday night, the party’s presidential candidates pointed to McConnell as a stumbling block — and their potential villain — if the Republican-led Congress was to clear Trump in the event of impeachment.
“I just want to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t end up with an acquittal by Mitch McConnell in the Senate, which it surely would do, and then President Trump would be running saying he had been acquitted by the U.S. Congress,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado. “I believe we have a moral obligation to defeat Donald Trump, he has to be a single term president and we can’t do anything that plays into his hands.”
But former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro drew huge applause when he said McConnell should not prevent Democrats from taking action.
“If they don’t impeach him he’s going to say ‘You see, you see the Democrats didn’t go after me on impeachment and you know why? Because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Castro said of Trump. “Conversely, if Mitch McConnell is the one that lets him off the hook, we’re going to be able to say ‘Sure, they impeached him but his friend, Moscow Mitch, let him off the hook.”
Bennet retorted: “I don’t disagree with that.”
McConnell has heartily embraced other epithets: his re-election campaign sells t-shirts emblazoned with “Cocaine Mitch,” a moniker bestowed on him by an unsuccessful West Virginia Senate candidate. But he’s sharply rejected “Moscow Mitch.” He took to the Senate floor Monday to heatedly decry his election security critics, accusing them of lying about his record and branding them as “hyperventilating hacks” engaged in “absurd smears” against him.
He’s repeatedly said he opposes Democratic election security legislation because he believes it gives too much power to the federal government. On Tuesday, he didn’t rule out additional election security legislation, including a bill that would require presidential campaigns to disclose to the FBI any offers of foreign assistance.
“We are open to any suggestions people may have about how to improve the system,” McConnell told reporters. “Maybe we can reach an agreement on the kinds of things that would further improve the situation.
McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2020, has been a focus of the Democratic debates from the beginning. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee raised his name early in the debate, reiterating his call for the Senate to scrap the filibuster which requires 60 votes for legislation to pass.
Most of the senators running for president have not embraced eliminating the filibuster. Inslee warned that unless Democrats win a sizeable majority in the Senate, “Mitch McConnell is going to run the U.S. Senate even if we take a majority. We’ve got to get rid of the filibuster.”
McConnell got nearly as many mentions as Trump in the first set of Democratic presidential primary debates, and former vice president Joe Biden was forced to defend his long working relationship with McConnell.
As moderators at June debates pressed the Democrats about how they would govern with a Republican majority leader, the candidates generally had little to offer, beyond Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, saying Democrats need to “make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”
And Biden — who liberal critics hammered for being too willing to work with Republicans — said he had worked with McConnell because lawmakers sometimes need to cut deals.
The focus on McConnell comes as he has emerged as a top villain for Democrats, unpopular for his support for Trump’s agenda, the rapid pace at which he’s shepherded Trump’s judicial picks and his own role in blocking Democratic legislation.
Two Democrats have already announced plans to challenge McConnell, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath and Michael Broihier, a Marine Corps veteran and farmer from Lincoln County.
The attention from the 2020 hopefuls hasn’t bothered McConnell, who told reporters after the June debates that he was “thrilled to dominate the discussion.
“I understand that my sin is that I’ve been stopping left wing agenda items coming out of the House and confirming strict constructionists to the Supreme Court,” McConnell said. “That’s my sin and I plead guilty.”
Early in the Tuesday debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, blamed McConnell and Republican fealty to the National Rifle Association for the lack of congressional action on gun legislation.
“The House passed universal background checks,” Klobuchar said. “And now that bill is sitting on Mitch McConnell’s doorstep because of the money and the power of the NRA.”