This weekend, after President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer attacked the special counsel, Robert Mueller, prominent Republicans pushed back hard — from surprising quarters of the party.
Speaker Paul Ryan rose to Mueller’s defense. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., known more as an inquisitor of Democrats than a critic of Trump, snapped, if the president had done nothing wrong, he should “act like it.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolinian, warned darkly that the firing of the special counsel would be “the beginning of the end of his presidency.”
But in the ornate leadership suites of the Republican-controlled Senate, all was silent.
Not until Tuesday did the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, utter a word, and at his regular weekly news conference, he had little choice.
“I agree with the president’s lawyers that Bob Mueller should be allowed to finish his job,” he said in his patented monotone, but he added that he did not believe Congress should pass a law to protect the special counsel.
“I don’t think Bob Mueller is going anywhere,” he said. In what some saw as a subtle message to the president, he called Mueller “an excellent appointment,” adding, “I have a lot of confidence in him.”
McConnell’s cautious handling of what some fear could become a crisis was no accident; he rarely criticizes the president in public and sees little upside to doing so. But critics — some in his own party — say that by not issuing a more direct warning, McConnell is undermining Congress’ standing as a coequal branch of government — and inviting Trump to act on his impulses.
It is time, they say, for the majority leader to lead.
“One of the things that we ought to do is be more forceful — everybody, especially the leadership,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who took to Twitter on Tuesday to beg the president not to fire the special counsel and warn that doing so could lead to impeachment. (Graham issued a similar warning during an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt.)
Republican leaders including McConnell, Flake said, should “stand up and forcefully say, ‘This will not stand.’”
Confrontation is not McConnell’s style. He is a shrewd politician and a parliamentary tactician who much prefers operating behind the scenes. Complicating matters, his wife, Elaine L. Chao, is the secretary of transportation, in Trump’s Cabinet.
“He’s always viewed his role as more of a legislative craftsman than a moral leader,” said William Kristol, the founding editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. He sees McConnell — and many other Republicans — as making a purely political calculation in their silence.
“The Republican primary electorate is pro-Trump, a good chunk of it,” Kristol said. “Why pick a fight with them? Why get in the middle of anything?”
Trump’s weekend Twitter posts, driven by the ever-widening scope of the Mueller investigation into Russia’s election interference, was the first time he had criticized the special counsel by name, not counting a message he reshared. The president has long insisted that neither he nor his campaign colluded with Russia. He calls the investigation a “witch hunt.”
In fact, Trump ordered the firing of Mueller in June, but backed off after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.
Such threats have inspired two bipartisan bills that would add job protections for Mueller and future special counsels. Both would empower a panel of federal judges to review the case for firing the special counsel and render a judgment about whether there was good cause to do so. Both are stalled in committee.
Some lawmakers have questioned whether such legislation would be constitutional, and McConnell has said repeatedly that additional protections for Mueller are not necessary.
“I think he will have great credibility with the American people when he reaches a conclusion of this investigation,” McConnell said of Mueller on Tuesday.
For Peter Wehner, who advised President George W. Bush on domestic policy, that is not good enough.
McConnell and other Republican leaders must “make it clear to Trump and the White House that if he fires Mueller, that is crossing a red line, and there will be consequences,” Wehner said. One idea: Warn the president that Congress will hire Mueller to continue his inquiry if Trump fires him.
“I understand that this is not McConnell’s thing to speak out and challenge people publicly, and maybe he is being extremely effective privately — and if he is, more power to him,” Wehner said. “But on the other hand, what’s said publicly matters, too. And at some point, if what Trump says and does is met with silence, it implies complicity for the party.”
McConnell learned the dangers of criticizing Trump in August, when he was asked in Kentucky about the Senate’s struggle to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Defending the chamber’s work, McConnell offered an offhand assessment of how the president appeared to be learning on the job, saying Trump “had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”
It was hardly inflammatory, but the comment infuriated Trump, who responded with a Twitter tirade against the leader that lasted six weeks. The two did not speak for a long stretch during that period, and their relationship deteriorated to the point where McConnell privately expressed doubts that Trump could salvage his presidency.
In October, as suddenly as it began, Trump’s Twitter attack ended. In an orchestrated show of togetherness, he brought McConnell into the Rose Garden to declare that the two were “closer than ever before.” One person close to McConnell says he does not want a repeat of what followed the “excessive expectations” remark.
“That caused him six weeks of unrelenting pain of Trump whacking him,” that person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss McConnell’s thinking. “I think at that moment, McConnell learned a lesson: There’s nothing to be gained by commenting on his comments because it doesn’t change his behavior.”
McConnell has always been a man of few words, and one who chooses his words carefully. Unlike other senators who linger in the Capitol corridors to talk with reporters, he shuns hallway interviews and rarely takes more than a few questions at his Tuesday briefings. His reticence is integral to his leadership style.
“That’s one of the reasons why he’s a pretty effective leader — it’s because he economizes words,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for McConnell who remains close to him. “When he speaks, it generally means something.”
McConnell also makes it a point not to speak out on an issue unless his position has changed. He said in November, and then again in January, that he saw no need for legislation to protect the special counsel; when asked about Trump’s tweets over the weekend, his advisers simply cited those statements.
And the leader routinely advises his conference that it is more effective to deal with concerns internally than debate them through the media.
“If he’s got a problem,” Holmes said, “he probably communicates it directly and doesn’t feel the need to pontificate in public.”