The Senate Majority Leader’s refusal to rein in the President is looking riskier than ever.
On Thursday, March 12th, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, could have insisted that he and his colleagues work through the weekend to hammer out an emergency aid package addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, he recessed the Senate for a long weekend, and returned home to Louisville, Kentucky. McConnell, a seventy-eight-year-old Republican who is about to complete his sixth term as a senator, planned to attend a celebration for a protégé, Justin Walker, a federal judge who was once his Senate intern. McConnell has helped install nearly two hundred conservatives as judges; stocking the judiciary has been his legacy project.
Soon after he left the Capitol, Democrats in the House of Representatives settled on a preliminary rescue package, working out the details with the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin. The Senate was urgently needed for the next steps in the process. McConnell, though, was onstage in a Louisville auditorium, joking that his opponents “occasionally compare me to Darth Vader.”
The gathering had the feel of a reunion. Don McGahn, Donald Trump’s former White House counsel, whom McConnell has referred to as his “buddy and co-collaborator” in confirming conservative judges, flew down for the occasion. So did Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose Senate confirmation McConnell had fought fiercely to secure. Walker, the event’s honoree, had clerked for Kavanaugh, and became one of his lead defenders after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault. McConnell is now championing Walker for an opening on the powerful D.C. Court of Appeals, even though Walker has received a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association, in part because, at the age of thirty-eight, he has never tried a case.
Another former Senate aide of McConnell’s, a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Gregory Van Tatenhove, also attended the Louisville event. His wife, Christine, is a former undergraduate scholar at the McConnell Center—an academic program at the University of Louisville which, among other things, hosts an exhibit honoring the Senator’s career. Recently, she donated a quarter of a million dollars to the center.
McConnell, a voracious reader of history, has been cultivating his place in it for many years. But, in leaving Washington for the long weekend, he had misjudged the moment. The hashtag #WheresMitch? was trending on Twitter. President Trump had declared a national emergency; the stock market had ended one of its worst weeks since the Great Recession. Nearly two thousand cases of covid-19 had already been confirmed in America.
Eleven days later, the Senate still had not come up with a bill. The Times ran a scorching editorial titled “The Coronavirus Bailout Stalled. And It’s Mitch McConnell’s Fault.” The Majority Leader had tried to jam through a bailout package that heavily favored big business. But by then five Republicans were absent in self-quarantine, and the Democrats forced McConnell to accept a $2.1-trillion compromise bill that reduced corporate giveaways and expanded aid to health-care providers and to hard-hit workers.
McConnell, who is known as one of the wiliest politicians in Washington, soon reframed the narrative as a personal success story. In Kentucky, where he is running for reëlection, he launched a campaign ad about the bill’s passage, boasting, “One leader brought our divided country together.” At the same time, he attacked the Democrats, telling a radio host that the impeachment of Trump had “diverted the attention of the government” when the epidemic was in its early stages. In fact, several senators—including Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut—had raised alarms about the virus nearly two months before the Administration acted, whereas Trump had told reporters around the same time that he was “not concerned at all.” And on February 27th, some three weeks after the impeachment trial ended, McConnell had defended the Administration’s response, accusing Democrats of “performative outrage” when they demanded more emergency funding.
Many have regarded McConnell’s support for Trump as a stroke of cynical political genius. McConnell has seemed to be both protecting his caucus and covering his flank in Kentucky—a deep-red state where, perhaps not coincidentally, Trump is far more popular than he is. When the pandemic took hold, the President’s standing initially rose in national polls, and McConnell and Trump will surely both take credit for the aid package in the coming months. Yet, as covid-19 decimates the economy and kills Americans across the nation, McConnell’s alliance with Trump is looking riskier. Indeed, some critics argue that McConnell bears a singular responsibility for the country’s predicament. They say that he knew from the start that Trump was unequipped to lead in a crisis, but, because the President was beloved by the Republican base, McConnell protected him. He even went so far as to prohibit witnesses at the impeachment trial, thus guaranteeing that the President would remain in office. David Hawpe, the former editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, said of McConnell, “There are a lot of people disappointed in him. He could have mobilized the Senate. But the Republican Party changed underneath him, and he wanted to remain in power.”
Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican political consultant, agrees that McConnell’s party deserves a considerable share of the blame for America’s covid-19 disaster. In a forthcoming book, “It Was All a Lie,” Stevens writes that, in accommodating Trump and his base, McConnell and other Republicans went along as Party leaders dismantled the country’s safety net and ignored experts of all kinds, including scientists. “Mitch is kidding himself if he thinks he’ll be remembered for anything other than Trump,” he said. “He will be remembered as the Trump facilitator.”
The President is vindictive toward Republicans who challenge him, as Mitt Romney can attest. Yet Stevens believes that the conservatives who have acceded to Trump will pay a more lasting price. “Trump was the moral test, and the Republican Party failed,” Stevens said. “It’s an utter disaster for the long-term fate of the Party. The Party has become an obsession with power without purpose.”
Bill Kristol, a formerly stalwart conservative who has become a leading Trump critic, describes McConnell as “a pretty conventional Republican who just decided to go along and get what he could out of Trump.” Under McConnell’s leadership, the Senate, far from providing a check on the executive branch, has acted as an accelerant. “Demagogues like Trump, if they can get elected, can’t really govern unless they have people like McConnell,” Kristol said. McConnell has stayed largely silent about the President’s lies and inflammatory public remarks, and has propped up the Administration with legislative and judicial victories. McConnell has also brought along the Party’s financial backers. “There’s been too much focus on the base, and not enough on business leaders, big donors, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page,” Kristol said, adding, “The Trump base would be there anyway, but the élites might have rebelled if not for McConnell. He could have fundamentally disrupted Trump’s control, but instead McConnell has kept the trains running.”
McConnell and the President are not a natural pair. A former Trump Administration official, who has also worked in the Senate, observed, “It would be hard to find two people less alike in temperament in the political arena. With Trump, there’s rarely an unspoken thought. McConnell is the opposite—he’s constantly thinking but says as little as possible.” The former Administration official went on, “Trump is about winning the day, or even the hour. McConnell plays the long game. He’s sensitive to the political realities. His North Star is continuing as Majority Leader—it’s really the only thing for him. He’s patient, sly, and will obfuscate to make less apparent the ways he’s moving toward a goal.” The two men also have different political orientations: “Trump is a populist—he’s not just anti-élitist, he’s anti-institutionalist.” As for McConnell, “no one with a straight face would ever call him a populist—Trump came to drain the swamp, and now he’s working with the biggest swamp creature of them all.”
When Trump ran for President, he frequently derided “the corrupt political establishment,” saying that Wall Street titans were “getting away with murder” by paying no taxes. In a furious campaign ad, images of the New York Stock Exchange and the C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs flashed onscreen as he promised an end to the élites who had “bled our country dry.” In interviews, he denounced his opponents for begging wealthy donors for campaign contributions, arguing that, if “somebody gives them money,” then “just psychologically, when they go to that person they’re going to do it—they owe him.”
McConnell, by contrast, is the master of the Washington money machine. Nobody has done more than he has to engineer the current campaign-finance system, in which billionaires and corporations have virtually no spending limits, and self-dealing and influence-peddling are commonplace. Rick Wilson, a Never Trumper Republican and a former political consultant who once worked on races with McConnell’s team, said, “McConnell’s an astounding behind-the-scenes operator who’s got control of the most successful fund-raising operation in history.” Former McConnell staffers run an array of ostensibly independent spending groups, many of which take tens of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors. Wilson considers McConnell, who has been Majority Leader since 2015, a realist who does whatever is necessary to preserve both his own political survival and the Republicans’ edge in the Senate, which now stands at 53–47. “He feels no shame about it,” he said. “McConnell has been the most powerful force normalizing Trump in Washington.”
Al Cross, a columnist and a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky, who is considered the dean of the state’s political press corps, believes that McConnell’s partnership with Trump “is the most important political relationship in the country.” He had hoped that McConnell would push back against Trump. After all, past Republicans have crossed party lines to defend democracy—from censuring Joe McCarthy to forcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon. “But Trump and McConnell have come to understand each other,” Cross said. “The President needs him to govern. McConnell knows that if their relationship fell apart it would be a disaster for the Republican majority in the Senate. They’re very different in many ways, but fundamentally they’re about the same thing—winning.”
In a forthcoming book, “Let Them Eat Tweets,” the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson challenge the notion that the Republican Party is riven between global corporate élites and downscale white social conservatives. Rather, they argue, an “expedient pact” lies at the heart of today’s Party—and McConnell and Trump embody it. Polls show that there is little voter support for wealthy donors’ agenda of tax cuts for themselves at the expense of social-safety-net cuts for others. The Republicans’ 2017 tax bill was a case in point: it rewarded the Party’s biggest donors by bestowing more than eighty percent of its largesse on the wealthiest one percent, by cutting corporate tax rates, and by preserving the carried-interest loophole, which is exploited by private-equity firms and hedge funds. The legislation was unpopular with Democratic and Republican voters alike. In order to win elections, Hacker and Pierson explain, the Republican Party has had to form a coalition between corporatists and white cultural conservatives who are galvanized by Trump’s anti-élitist and racist rhetoric. The authors call this hybrid strategy Plutocratic Populism. Hacker told me that the relationship between McConnell and Trump offers “a clear illustration of how the Party has evolved,” adding, “They may detest each other, but they need each other.”
Although the two men almost always support each other in public, several members of McConnell’s innermost circle told me that in private things are quite different. They say that behind Trump’s back McConnell has called the President “nuts,” and made clear that he considers himself smarter than Trump, and that he “can’t stand him.” (A spokesman for McConnell, who declined to be interviewed, denies this.) According to one such acquaintance, McConnell said that Trump resembles a politician he loathes: Roy Moore, the demagogic former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, whose 2017 campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat was upended by allegations that he’d preyed on teen-age girls. (Moore denies them.) “They’re so much alike,” McConnell told the acquaintance.
McConnell’s political fealty to Trump has cost him the respect of some of the people who have known him the longest. David Jones, the late co-founder of the health-care giant Humana, backed all McConnell’s Senate campaigns, starting in 1984; Jones and his company’s foundation collectively gave $4.6 million to the McConnell Center. When Jones died, last September, McConnell described him as, “without exaggeration, the single most influential friend and mentor I’ve had in my entire career.” But, three days before Jones’s death, Jones and his two sons, David, Jr., and Matthew, sent the second of two scorching letters to McConnell, both of which were shared with me. They called on him not to be “a bystander” and to use his “constitutional authority to protect the nation from President Trump’s incoherent and incomprehensible international actions.” They argued that “the powers of the Senate to constrain an errant President are prodigious, and it is your job to put them to use.” McConnell had assured them, in response to their first letter, that Trump had “one of the finest national-security teams with whom I have had the honor of working.” But in the second letter the Joneses replied that half of that team had since gone, leaving the Department of Defense “leaderless for months,” and the office of the director of National Intelligence with only an “ ‘acting’ caretaker.” The Joneses noted that they had all served the country: the father in the Navy, Matthew in the Marine Corps, and David, Jr., in the State Department, as a lawyer. Imploring McConnell “to lead,” they questioned the value of “having chosen the judges for a republic while allowing its constitutional structures to fail and its strength and security to crumble.”
John David Dyche, a lawyer in Louisville and until recently a conservative columnist, enjoyed unmatched access to McConnell and his papers, and published an admiring biography of him in 2009. In March, though, Dyche posted a Twitter thread that caused a lot of talk in the state’s political circles. He wrote that McConnell “of course realizes that Trump is a hideous human being & utterly unfit to be president,” and that, in standing by Trump anyway, he has shown that he has “no ideology except his own political power.” Dyche declined to comment for this article, but, after the coronavirus shut down most of America, he announced that he was contributing to McConnell’s opponent, Amy McGrath, and tweeted, “Those who stick with the hideous, incompetent demagogue endanger the country & will be remembered in history as shameful cowards.”
McConnell also appears to have lost the political support of his three daughters. The youngest, Porter, is a progressive activist who is the campaign director for Take On Wall Street, a coalition of labor unions and nonprofit groups which advocates against the “predatory economic power” of “banks and billionaires.” One of its targets has been Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and C.E.O. of the Blackstone Group, who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has, since 2016, donated nearly thirty million dollars to campaigns and super pacs aligned with McConnell. Last year, Take On Wall Street condemned Blackstone’s “detrimental behavior” and argued that the company’s campaign donations “cast a pall on candidates’ ethics.”
Porter McConnell has also publicly criticized the Senate’s confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, which her father considers one of his greatest achievements. On Twitter, she accused Kavanaugh’s supporters of misogyny, and retweeted a post from StandWithBlaseyFord, a Web site supporting Christine Blasey Ford, one of Kavanaugh’s accusers. The husband of McConnell’s middle daughter, Claire, has also criticized Kavanaugh online, and McConnell’s eldest daughter, Eleanor, is a registered Democrat.
All three daughters declined to comment, as did their mother, Sherrill Redmon, whom McConnell divorced in 1980. After the marriage ended, Redmon, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, left Kentucky and took over a women’s-history archive at Smith College, in Massachusetts, where she collaborated with Gloria Steinem on the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project. In an e-mail, Steinem told me that Redmon rarely spoke about McConnell, and noted, “Despite Sherrill’s devotion to recording all of women’s lives, she didn’t talk about the earlier part of her own.” Steinem’s understanding was that McConnell’s political views had once been different. “I can only imagine how painful it must be to marry and have children with a democratic Jekyll and see him turn into a corrupt and authoritarian Hyde,” she wrote. (Redmon is evidently working on a tell-all memoir.)
Steinem’s comment echoed a common belief about McConnell: that he began his career as an idealistic, liberal Republican in the mold of Nelson Rockefeller. Certainly, McConnell’s current positions on several key issues, including campaign spending and organized labor, are far more conservative than they once were. But when I asked John Yarmuth, the Democratic congressman from Louisville, who has known McConnell for fifty years, if McConnell had once been idealistic, he said, “Nah. I never saw any evidence of that. He was just driven to be powerful.”
Yarmuth, who began as a Republican and worked in a statewide campaign alongside McConnell in 1968, said that McConnell had readily adapted to the Republican Party’s rightward march: “He never had any core principles. He just wants to be something. He doesn’t want to do anything.”
For months, I searched for the larger principles or sense of purpose that animates McConnell. I traveled twice to Kentucky, observed him at a Trump rally in Lexington, and watched him preside over the impeachment trial in Washington. I interviewed dozens of people, some of whom love him and some of whom despise him. I read his autobiography, his speeches, and what others have written about him. Finally, someone who knows him very well told me, “Give up. You can look and look for something more in him, but it isn’t there. I wish I could tell you that there is some secret thing that he really believes in, but he doesn’t.”
The notion that McConnell started out as an idealist is a staple of most versions of his life story, including his own autobiography, “The Long Game,” published in 2016. He describes his awe, as a young congressional intern, at seeing crowds gather on the Washington Mall for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in 1963. McConnell, who was on summer break from the University of Louisville, writes that he recognized he “was witnessing a pivotal moment in history.”
McConnell was born in Alabama in 1942, and grew up in the segregated Deep South. He spent much of his childhood in Georgia before moving with his family to Louisville, Kentucky, just before his high-school years. His mother, the daughter of Alabama subsistence farmers, was a secretary in Birmingham when she met McConnell’s father, a mid-level corporate manager who had grown up in a more prosperous family but had dropped out of college. McConnell, in his autobiography, describes his mother’s wedding dowry as little more than “an apple corer and a can opener.” But his parents, he writes, gave him a comfortable middle-class childhood and “instilled me with a deep-seated belief in equal and civil rights, which, given their own upbringing in the Deep South, was quite extraordinary.” He quotes a moving letter from his father celebrating the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and writes that he, too, supported the legislation. That year, McConnell even voted for Lyndon Johnson for President.
McConnell’s book does not mention that his father, who worked in the human-resources department at DuPont, was deposed by lawyers for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a historic racial-discrimination case. Kerry Scanlon, one of the lawyers, told me, “The leadership at that plant seemed to define racism. There was a plantation system in which the black employees did the hardest jobs, like working in front of these open fires where they got burned—and they got the worst pay. There was a systemic pattern of racism.” After years of litigation, the company settled the case, for fourteen million dollars.
McConnell writes that the formative experience of his early life was contracting polio at the age of two, ten years before Jonas Salk developed his vaccine. McConnell’s father was away, having joined the military after the start of the Second World War, and so for the next two years his mother, largely alone, confined him to bed except for a painful daily regimen of exercises. His first memory is of his mother’s purchase of a pair of saddle shoes that allowed him to look like other kids once the doctors finally allowed him to walk. He emerged unimpaired, other than having a weak left leg. He credits the experience, and his mother’s determination, with giving him the focus and drive that have propelled him throughout his career. Beating polio, he writes, was the first in a lifetime pursuit of hard-fought “wins.” In recent weeks, as McConnell has contended with the coronavirus challenge, he has said that it brings back “this eerie feeling” of “fear that every mother had” during a polio epidemic.
An only child, McConnell remained close to his mother, who shared his flinty personality. He also remained devoted to the idea that grit and preparation could beat even the longest odds. He keeps on his office wall a framed copy of a quotation often attributed to Calvin Coolidge, which begins, “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence.” (Some people who knew of this found it ironic when, in 2017, in the Senate, he criticized Elizabeth Warren for refusing to yield the floor, complaining, “She persisted.”)
In his book, McConnell recounts a day when his father ordered him to cross the street and beat up an older boy who had been pushing him around. McConnell protested that the boy was bigger, but his father said, “It’s time you showed him who’s boss.” Fearing his father more than the bully, McConnell went over and sucker-punched his neighbor. McConnell writes that the lesson taught him the importance of “standing up for myself, knowing there’s a point beyond which I can’t be pushed, and being tough.” He admits that he’s been criticized for his toughness, but adds that “it’s almost always worked.”
McConnell’s first ambition was to be a baseball player. He was a good Little League pitcher, but by middle school his physical limitations ended his hopes. According to people who know him, his box-score approach to politics—“Our team against their team,” as one put it—is merely a substitute for his competitive approach to sports.
When McConnell tells the story of his first campaign—for student-council president—what leaps out is that he seemed far more interested in winning the title than in doing anything with it. As an underclassman, he was an introvert who sat by himself in the back of the auditorium at assemblies, and he was dazzled by the student-council president, who “had the envy of everyone.” When he confided this to his mother, she encouraged him to run for the position. He told her, “I don’t have even one friend.” But, McConnell writes, he went ahead, realizing that he could hustle endorsements from popular cheerleaders and athletes by giving them the “one thing teenagers most desire. Flattery.” He won. He writes that, upon having his first taste of the respect that comes with holding elected office, “I was hooked.”
McConnell was the kind of political nerd who, as a kid, watched both parties’ Conventions gavel to gavel, and he soon set his sights on a goal: becoming a U.S. senator. He wrote his college thesis on Kentucky’s famed nineteenth-century senator Henry Clay, who was known as the Great Compromiser. The Senate seemed like the ideal place for McConnell: he lacked charisma but had single-minded ambition, as well as a gift for savvy, farsighted planning. He also had a flair for cultivating powerful backers, and for what he has called “calculated résumé-building activities.” After college, he got an internship with the Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper. McConnell describes the glamorous Republican moderate as “the first truly great man I’d ever met.” Cooper socialized in Georgetown with the Kennedys, and the press praised him for following his conscience instead of Kentucky polls. He backed the Civil Rights Act and opposed the Vietnam War, telling McConnell that there were times to follow the herd and times to go your own way.
In those days, McConnell opposed the war himself. Nevertheless, in 1967, after graduating from the University of Kentucky’s law school, he began serving in the Army Reserve, because, he acknowledges, it was smart politically. Five weeks later, he obtained a medical discharge, for an eye condition. McConnell has claimed that he “used no connections” to get out. But, soon after he enlisted, his father contacted Senator Cooper, who intervened with the commanding officer at McConnell’s base. Records show that Cooper pressured the Army to move quickly, suggesting that McConnell had immediate academic plans: “Mitchell anxious to clear post in order to enroll NYU.” He never enrolled.
Instead, McConnell began his political climb. It started poorly. In 1971, he ran for the state legislature, but he was disqualified because he didn’t meet the residency requirements. He vowed never again to ignore the fine print, and has since become a master of the Senate’s arcane rules.
In 1973, during the Watergate scandal, McConnell wrote an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal denouncing the corrupting influence of money on politics as “a cancer,” and demanding public financing for Presidential elections. To read the op-ed now is head-spinning, given his current views. On closer examination, though, there is a consistency to his flip-flop. His call for reform reflected the political consensus after Nixon’s disgrace. In other words, the anti-corruption position he took in 1973 was in his political self-interest, just as his embrace of big money has been in recent decades. As he confessed to Dyche, his biographer, the op-ed was merely “playing for headlines.” McConnell, planning to run for office as a Republican, wanted to clear his name of Nixon’s tarnish.
McConnell had been hired by a Kentucky law firm, but he found it dull. In Louisville, he became friends with the sister of the Deputy Attorney General, Laurence Silberman, and in 1976 he used the connection to get a job working for Silberman in D.C., as Deputy Assistant Attorney General. The experience appears to have influenced his thinking about money in politics and much else. He became an acolyte of Silberman and two other towering figures of conservative jurisprudence then at the Justice Department: Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.
After Watergate, Congress had cracked down on political money by imposing strict limits on campaign contributions and spending, and created the Federal Election Commission to enforce the new laws. But conservatives, as well as a few liberal groups, including the A.C.L.U., began to litigate against the reforms. James Buckley, a conservative New York senator, challenged the spending limits as an infringement of his ability to pay for political communication, and thus a violation of his right to free speech.
The case, Buckley v. Valeo, went to the Supreme Court, and Buckley won. It marked the beginning of a forty-year, largely right-wing assault on efforts to keep private interests from corrupting American politics. Charles Koch, the arch-conservative billionaire oil refiner from Kansas, who was intent on using his fortune to seize control of American politics, was an early champion of the cause. McConnell adopted the “Money is speech” idea as his own, and eventually became the country’s most relentless proponent of more money in politics. John Cheves, a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, has described a class that McConnell taught in the seventies, at the University of Louisville. On a blackboard, he wrote down the three things he felt were necessary for success in politics: Money. Money. Money.
In 1977, McConnell ran for the position of Jefferson County judge/executive, the official overseeing the county that encompasses Louisville. A contemporary news account documents that, after announcing his candidacy, he promised to limit his campaign spending. But Mike Ward, who had elicited the pledge as the chair of Common Cause Kentucky, told me, “He snookered me.” Ward says that he thought McConnell meant to limit spending throughout the campaign, but McConnell’s promise applied only to the primary, in which he had no serious opponent. In the general election, he spent a record amount—and won.
Ward, a Democrat who was later elected to Congress, suggests that McConnell’s first campaign was misleading in other ways. Unlike much of Kentucky, Louisville is a Democratic stronghold. “We’re a moderate community, so to get elected he masqueraded as a progressive,” Ward said. To win the endorsement of labor unions, McConnell pledged to support collective bargaining for public employees, an issue he dropped after taking office. Years later, he admitted to Dyche that he’d been “pandering.” Abortion-rights groups believed that McConnell was on their side, but he claims that they were mistaken. Ever since then, he has called himself “pro-life,” and has packed the courts with judges who oppose Roe v. Wade. According to two people who have been close to McConnell, he attends church but isn’t especially religious, nor does he care about abortion; but, as one of the sources put it, he “will never take any position that could lose him an election.”
The race for county judge/executive got ugly. McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Todd Hollenbach, was then in the midst of a divorce, and Hollenbach told me that McConnell “made an issue of my family life.” McConnell’s spokesman denies this, but Dyche’s biography describes McConnell “calling attention to his opponent’s domestic life” with an ad describing himself as “a lucky guy” with “a great wife and two kids.” Once McConnell was elected, according to two sources, he made a sexual advance toward one of his female employees. Although his spokesman says that this didn’t happen, one of the sources told me, “It’s the God’s honest truth.” Yet McConnell’s first press secretary, Meme Runyon, praised him for hiring a number of young women, including her, and giving them career-making professional opportunities.
Three years after defeating Hollenbach, though, McConnell, amid accusations of infidelity, got divorced himself. He soon began searching for a new spouse. Keith Runyon, Meme’s husband and a former editorial-page editor of the liberal Louisville Courier-Journal, vividly recalls him showing up at their house for dinner badly sunburned after a day of campaigning at a fish fry. McConnell, who has limited patience for such glad-handing, confided a plan. Runyon recalls him saying, “One of the things I’ve got to do is to marry a rich woman, like John Sherman Cooper did.” Runyon added, “Boy, did he ever.”
McConnell’s spokesman disputes Runyon’s account, but, in 1993, McConnell married Elaine Chao, an heiress, who is currently serving as Trump’s Secretary of Transportation. McConnell devotes a chapter of his autobiography to “Love,” describing how he and Chao, who emigrated from Taiwan as a child, are “kindred spirits.” He explains, “We both knew the feeling of not fitting in, and had worked long and hard in order to prove ourselves.” Chao graduated from Harvard Business School, ran the Peace Corps, served as President George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary, and has been a director on such influential boards as those of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. She also brought a sizable fortune into McConnell’s life. Her father, James Chao, is the founder and chairman of the Foremost Group, a family-owned maritime shipping company, based in New York, which reportedly sends seventy percent of its freight to China.
When McConnell presided over Trump’s impeachment trial, in which the President was accused of trying to extort Ukrainian officials into helping him smear his political rival Joe Biden, he allowed Republican senators to keep insisting that the “real” Ukraine scandal was the Biden family’s enrichment from their connections with the country’s rulers. Yet McConnell must have known that virtually any criticism one could make about the Biden family could be made as well about the Chao family. In fact, such criticisms had been made in the book “Secret Empires,” by the conservative writer Peter Schweizer. Republicans who promoted the book’s accusations against the Biden family evidently skipped the adjoining chapter on McConnell and the Chao family.
As the Times has documented, McConnell and his in-laws have benefitted from unusual connections in Beijing. One of James Chao’s schoolmates was Jiang Zemin, who later became China’s President. According to the paper, James took a stake in a state-run company closely associated with Jiang. James and his daughter Angela, the chairman and C.E.O. of the family business, have also been on the boards of directors of some of China’s most powerful state-run businesses, including the Bank of China. Moreover, both Angela and her father have been on the board of a holding company that oversees China State Shipbuilding, which builds warships for the Chinese military. Angela Chao told the Times, “I’m an American,” and suggested that nobody would question the business “if I didn’t have a Chinese face.”
McConnell’s marriage also made him kin to some of the most influential businessmen in America. Angela Chao was married to the investment banker Bruce Wasserstein, who died in 2009, and she’s now married to Jim Breyer, a billionaire venture capitalist with huge financial interests in China. In 2016, Breyer joined the board of directors of Blackstone, giving McConnell a brother-in-law at a company that financially supports his campaigns, and that manages more than half a trillion dollars.
Chao family members were campaign donors of McConnell’s even before his marriage to Elaine. According to the Times, over the years the family has given more than a million dollars to McConnell’s campaigns or pacs tied to him. Furthermore, disclosure forms show that, after Elaine Chao’s mother died, in 2007, the family gave her and McConnell as much as twenty-five million dollars, making McConnell one of the Senate’s wealthiest members.
It can be a danger for affluent Washington insiders to appear out of touch, and Kentucky is one of America’s poorest states. McConnell and members of his staff have berated the home-town paper for running a photograph of him in a tuxedo. McConnell owns a modest house in Louisville, and at home, he makes a habit of doing everyday errands himself, such as shopping for groceries at a nearby Kroger. He attends local college sports events with a few old friends; they wear headphones, to follow the plays on the radio, and high-five one another when their team scores. Chao has been less vigilant about playing down her wealth. When she directed the Peace Corps, she stirred talk by arriving at work in a chauffeured car. At the Labor Department, the Times reported, she “employed a ‘Veep’-like staff member who carried around her bag.” A luxury beauty-and-fitness purveyor in Washington told me that she couldn’t get her staff to continue providing services for Chao after Chao knocked a makeup brush out of a beautician’s hand during one appointment and threw a brush on the floor during another. Kentucky Democrats have tried to make an issue of the couple’s wealth. Outside of Berea, a billboard featuring a giant photograph of McConnell and Chao is accompanied by the words “We’re rich. How y’all doin?”
Date Posted: Monday, April 13th, 2020 , Total Page Views: 616
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