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Senate Leader McConnell Condemns GOP Objections To Election Results

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two Senate elections in Georgia have given Democrats control of the United States Senate. That means that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell loses his post after six years in power. McConnell's final act as majority leader is proving to be his response to the president's continuing attack on democracy.

When Joe Biden's win became clear in early November, Mitch McConnell stood on the Senate floor. Instead of congratulating the obvious winner, he gave a carefully worded statement. He did not repeat the president's false claims of fraud but did say the formal process should play out.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.

INSKEEP: Six weeks later, in mid-December, Joe Biden's win was confirmed after every legal challenge failed. McConnell then spoke again.

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MCCONNELL: The Electoral College has spoken. So today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. The president-elect is no stranger to the Senate. He's devoted himself to public service for many years.

INSKEEP: In recent days, McConnell tried to prevent Congress from debating the baseless claims of fraud in yesterday's session, but it was not until yesterday that McConnell forcefully and in detail refuted the president's election claims as completely baseless. He added that Congress was no place to litigate them.

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MCCONNELL: We cannot simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids. The voters, the courts and the states - they've all spoken. They've all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.

INSKEEP: Mitch McConnell said his vote to override objections to this election was the most important vote of his 36 years in Congress. As he spoke, insurrectionists were already descending on the Capitol. They briefly disrupted the proceedings, although they resumed and were completed overnight.

Scott Jennings is with us now. He is a Republican strategist who has worked with Mitch McConnell over the years. Mr. Jennings, welcome back to the program.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Thanks and good morning.

INSKEEP: Mitch McConnell's speech yesterday was really quite powerful, but I have to ask if it was a mistake for him to wait two months to give it.

JENNINGS: Well, he works at the speed of the institution. I mean, I think most Republicans said after the election that if Donald Trump had issues with the votes that he should take it to court. That's the proper venue for the adjudication of claims. He did that. Every single court that looked at it did not agree. The Electoral College met. And that's immediately when Mitch McConnell acknowledged that Joe Biden was the president-elect. And then yesterday, after the president would not stop indulging this fantasy that the election was stolen, Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor and made a powerful speech. And I thought, frankly, it was one of his finest hours. It's regrettable that he had to actually give that speech.

Donald Trump is the cause of everything that happened yesterday. Some people stood tall, and some people gave in to it still. And I thought McConnell was one of those that stood tall.

INSKEEP: You're exactly correct that McConnell did not give in to it yesterday, but I do want to inquire about this and do it fairly. Mitch McConnell was described as one of the president's biggest enablers over the years. He did not always support the president. On a number of occasions, he criticized the president. But there were a lot of times that he was asked specifically about the president's lies, and he would just walk away from the microphones. Should he have said more sooner?

JENNINGS: I think the president over the years had an agenda, and Mitch McConnell felt like that as the Republican leader, it was his job to try to help the president get outcomes on that agenda. He did that and, frankly, did it pretty faithfully and did get some outcomes for the president that I'm not sure he could've gotten without Mitch McConnell's skill in legislative maneuvering.

But, look; once the election was over and the claims had been adjudicated and the votes were counted, Mitch McConnell stuck by the institution and the norms and the gears of our democracy. And he was not about to let Donald Trump live in an alternate bubble. And I think the speech he gave yesterday were a recognition of that. And he - and - you know, convinced most of the Republicans in the Senate that the Republicans should not indulge what Donald Trump was doing. It's, I think, pretty bad that a couple of them went ahead and voted to do it anyway.

But I thought McConnell did what he did on the calendar of the institution, according to the gears of our democracy. Wasn't fast enough for some people, but he did it. And I think the message that he gave was exactly the right one.

INSKEEP: Let's hear one of those who indulged the president yesterday, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. Even after the violence and the disruption in the Capitol, when senators came back in and the House of Representatives came back in, he spoke on the Senate floor last night.

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JOSH HAWLEY: We do need an investigation into irregularities, fraud. We do need a way forward together. We need election security reforms. I bet my friends on the other side of the aisle don't disagree with that.

INSKEEP: Which was a common theme of the people who supported the president here. They didn't repeat the president's lies quite so much as just saying, look; there are allegations we should investigate. But this is an obvious cynical ploy. Why do you think a large part of the party was addicted to that?

JENNINGS: Well, I think it was perfectly fine for those claims to be adjudicated by courts and at the state level. And to say that there was no investigation, to say that it wasn't looked into was a lie. The president's campaign had every opportunity to avail themselves of the courts, and they did that. These things are decided in the courts and at the state level. And to go on the Senate floor before and after the insurrection yesterday and to say, oh, we just want to have this looked into, that's a lie. They wanted to overturn the results of an election, and the results of elections are decided at the state level in this country.

After the insurrection, Hawley and Cruz and the rest had every opportunity and every reason to say, this has gone far enough. And the fact that they plowed forward and pushed it into the middle of the night still, I thought, was a disgrace to the institution and, frankly, a disgrace to the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: So Mitch McConnell now becomes the minority leader, but I'm not even sure that's exactly the right term when it's a 50-50 Senate and Kamala Harris, the vice president, is necessary to break ties. So he will still be in a very powerful position, but not dictating the schedule of the institution. Do you think that he anticipates using his power to work with the new president, oppose the new president? What?

JENNINGS: You know, I think they'll have a power-sharing agreement akin to what happened several years ago in a 50-50 Senate. Democrats will have control of the floor. It'll make it easier for Joe Biden to form his government. I don't think Republicans intend to try to stop Biden from forming a government. But certainly, they're not going to lay down their conservative principles.

And I think McConnell's view is in a closely divided government, policy ought to be made between the 40-yard lines. I do think he considers Joe Biden a friend. He was the only Senate Republican to go to Beau Biden's funeral. I think he thinks there are areas where they can work together. And after what happened yesterday...

INSKEEP: About 10 seconds.

JENNINGS: ...I hope it was a wake-up call to everybody in Washington that living in this fantasy alternate reality has to stop because there are real consequences.

INSKEEP: Republican strategist Scott Jennings, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

JENNINGS: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "DANZIGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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