Shortly before a violent MAGA mob stormed the Capitol, Mitch McConnell defended of our system of government and the orderly transfer of power. McConnell, who is losing his majority leader status after Democrats swept two special election Senate seats on Tuesday, warned members of the Senate against attempting to overturn Donald Trump’s defeat. “We cannot,” he said, “simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids.”
McConnell is a calculating political operative who rarely shows emotion. And McConnell is no innocent. He has happily exploited Trump’s movement to cement his own political agenda, including to steal a Supreme Court seat and pack the lower federal courts with dozens of young conservative jurists. But Trump is also a chaos agent and a threat to McConnell’s establishment order. McConnell plainly saw this speech as a chance to create separation from the outgoing president, and to strike a pose for future historians suggesting that the Senate leader was something less than complicit in Trump’s reckless and deadly four years in power.
When joint session of Congress convened to count the Electoral College votes took recess to debate a motion contesting results from Arizona, McConnell took the opportunity to rebuke the outgoing president. McConnell blasted Trump’s “sweeping conspiracy theories” and highlighted the president’s myriad court losses, including before judges Trump appointed, before insisting: “my colleagues, nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale — the massive scale — that would have tipped the entire election.”
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While giving voice to GOP concerns about election irregularities and “bizarre pandemic procedures,” McConnell highlighted that the election was “not unusually close” and warned that overruling the state-certified votes of the Electoral College would “damage our republic forever.”
Indeed McConnell cautioned that putting Congress’ judgment above that of the electorate would produce a democratic “death spiral” that would turn every presidential election year into “a scramble for power at any cost,” while also sidelining the Electoral College that has enabled recent Republican White House victories.
Implicitly chiding his colleagues, McConnell insisted that voting to contest the Electoral College was not an innocent stunt or a symbolic act: “I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing,” he said. “I will vote to respect the people’s decision and defend our system of government as we know it.”
McConnell may have thought he was playing the role of fireman, finally putting out the flames ignited by Trump. Instead, only minutes, Congress itself was engulfed. The halls of the Capitol were breached for the first time since the War of 1812, by a mob of Confederate-flag waving Trump supporters, whipped up by the president who won’t stop lying that he was robbed of a second term.
The chaos temporarily halted Congress’s sacred constitutional duty to tally the Electoral College’s votes and suggesting that the damage already done to our republic has been severe.
Watch a clip of McConnell’s speech, and read his full remarks, below:
We’re debating a step that has never been taken in American history. Whether Congress should overrule the voters and overturn a presidential election. I’ve served 36 years in the Senate. This will be the most important vote I’ve ever cast.
President Trump claims the election was stolen. The assertions range from specific local allegations to constitutional arguments to sweeping conspiracy theories. I supported the president’s right to use the legal system, dozens of lawsuits received hearings in courtrooms all across our country, but over and over, the courts rejected these claims, including all-star judges whom the president himself has nominated.
Every election we know features some illegality and irregularity, and of course that’s unacceptable. I support strong state-led voting reforms. Last year’s bizarre pandemic procedures must not become the new norm. But, my colleagues, nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale — the massive scale — that would have tipped the entire election. Nor can public doubt alone justify a radical break when the doubt itself was incited without any evidence.
The constitution gives us here in Congress a limited role. We cannot simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids. The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever. This election actually was not unusually close. Just in recent history, 1976, 2000, and 2004 were all closer than this one. The electoral college margin is almost identical to what it was in 2016.
If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We would never see the whole nation accept an election again. Every four years would be a scramble for power at any cost. The electoral college, which most of us on this side have been defending for years, would cease to exist, leaving many of our states with no real say at all in choosing a president.
The effects would go even beyond the elections themselves. Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth and a shared respect for the ground rules of our system. We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities. With nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share.
Every time, every time in the last 30 years that Democrats have lost a presidential race, they have tried to challenge just like this. After 2000, after 2004, after 2016. After 2004, a senator joined and forced the same debate, and believe it or not, Democrats like Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, and Hillary Clinton praised, praised and applauded the stunt. Republicans condemned those baseless efforts back then, and we just spent four years condemning Democrats’ shameful attacks on the validity of President Trump’s own election.
So look, there can be no double standard. The media that is outraged today spent four years aiding and abetting Democrats’ attacks on our institutions after they lost. But we must not imitate and escalate what we repudiate. Our duty is to govern for the public good. The United States Senate has a higher calling than an endless spiral of partisan vengeance.
Congress will either override the voters, overrule them, the voters, the states, and the courts for the first time ever, or honor the people’s decision. We’ll either guarantee Democrats’ delegitimizing efforts after 2016 become a permanent new routine for both sides or declare that our nation deserves a lot better than this. We’ll either hasten down a poisonous path where only the winners of an election actually accept the results or show we can still muster the patriotic courage that our forebears showed not only in victory but in defeat.
The framers built the Senate to stop short-term passions from boiling over and melting the foundations of our republic. So I believe protecting our constitutional order requires respecting the limits of our own power. It would be unfair and wrong to disenfranchise American voters and overrule the courts and the states on this extraordinarily thin basis. And I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing. I will vote to respect the people’s decision and defend our system of government as we know it.
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