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The Relationship Between McConnell and Trump Was Good for Both — Until It Wasn’t


“It really did have an impact on the election,” Mr. Trump said at the celebration in the East Room. “People knew me very well, but they didn’t know, ‘Is he liberal? Conservative?’”

Mr. McConnell, the canny Senate leader, and Mr. Trump, the Washington novice suddenly ensconced in the White House, became a team. It was not a great personal match. Mr. McConnell spilled nothing of his intentions; Mr. Trump spilled all.

Mr. Trump could not relate to the buttoned-lip approach of Mr. McConnell as he made clear this week in his scathing statement describing Mr. McConnell as “dour, sullen and unsmiling.” Mr. McConnell held private disdain for Mr. Trump and saw a flawed personality with a sketchy history who was not at all versed in the customs and rites of Washington.

But as the Trump era opened, Mr. McConnell was just happy that Mr. Trump didn’t turn out to be a Democrat, though some congressional Republicans were not so sure. And it didn’t hurt that Mr. Trump brought on Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, as transportation secretary.

“Back during the campaign, there were a lot of questions: Is Trump really a conservative? A lot of questions about it,” Mr. McConnell told The New York Times in February 2017 as the chaotic White House set up shop. “But if you look at the steps that have been taken so far, looks good to me.”

As he looked, Mr. McConnell, long obsessed with the federal courts, saw opportunity. Even before Mr. Trump was sworn in, Mr. McConnell approached Donald F. McGahn II, the incoming White House counsel, about establishing an assembly line of judicial nominees to fill vacancies caused by Republicans’ refusal to consider Obama administration nominees.

The interests of the Trump administration and Mitch McConnell had aligned. He prioritized appeals court judges, eliminated the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees and stood by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh despite accusations of sexual misconduct. He pushed Justice Amy Coney Barrett just days before the 2020 presidential election despite using the approach of the 2016 election to block Judge Merrick B. Garland’s nomination eight months before the voting. The judicial success provided both the president and the Republican leader with a legacy.

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