McConnell defends push for Ukraine aid amid attacks from Trump wing of GOP: ‘Every argument against this is wrong’

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after senate luncheons at the US Capitol on February 6.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after senate luncheons at the US Capitol on February 6. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell strongly defended his handling of a foreign aid package and bipartisan border security deal that have come under heavy criticism from his right flank, saying bluntly that “every argument” against Ukraine aid is “wrong” and that the opposition amounts to a “political reaction” driven by former President Donald Trump.

McConnell, having just presided over one of the most tumultuous periods in his nearly two-decade tenure atop the Senate GOP, said he has occasionally in the past been “on the short side” of GOP senators – like on government funding bills and debt ceiling hikes.

But in an interview with CNN in his Senate office on Wednesday, McConnell called this battle over Ukraine aid a “rare issue” where he had to get well out front of his party, which has grown increasingly resistant to helping fund the foreign war amid the ascendant isolationist wing being driven by Trump.

“It’s not a question of whether I’m frustrated or not,” McConnell said when asked about the criticism he’s endured from within his own party. “I feel strongly this is in our best interest, America’s best interest and the world’s best interests to do this. … And being beat up is something I’m kind of used to after 18 years.”

Over the last few weeks, McConnell blessed a bipartisan border security deal that he tried to sell to GOP senators – only to see it derailed by House Republican leaders, fellow senators and Trump himself. Then, he helped push through the Senate a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan – only to find himself in the minority of his conference when 22 of the 49 GOP senators voted to approve the plan earlier this week. Now, House Speaker Mike Johnson is threatening to shelve the bill altogether – all with Trump’s backing.

The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024.

RELATED ARTICLEHow each member of the Senate voted on foreign aid package

In the interview, McConnell harkened back to his childhood when his father – a foot soldier in World War II – had warned about the Russian threat, something he says has only grown more pervasive decades later.

“Every argument against this is wrong. Every single one of them,” McConnell said of providing billions more to Ukraine. “Most of the money’s being spent here. Europeans have done as much, and, after the $55 billion from the EU, more than we have. Not a single American soldier has lost their lives in this fight – we’ve got a bunch of people willing to kill Russians. I can’t find any argument against this that makes any sense.”

McConnell added: “So I think it’s a political reaction led, obviously, by the likely nominee for president having a view and expressing a view on this. So I think that’s why we are where we are.”

Senate GOP leader’s suggestion: A House vote on aid bill

McConnell’s comments come as Johnson said on Wednesday that the House would not take up the aid package, with many in his party arguing it’s time to stop pouring money into Ukraine and calling for more aggressive border security measures than the package proposed by the bipartisan group of senators and blessed by the Senate GOP leader.

“The Republican-led House will not be jammed or forced into passing a foreign aid bill that was opposed by most Republican senators and does nothing to secure own border,” Johnson said Wednesday.

McConnell said he wouldn’t comment on Johnson’s assertion. But he suggested that the Senate bill should get a vote on the House floor.

“Whatever advice I have for the speaker I give him privately, not publicly,” McConnell said. “The only thing I’ve said publicly is we’ve heard all kinds of rumors about what the vote would be on Ukraine. Why not have it?”

In the interview, McConnell downplayed the influence of the isolationist wing of his party, arguing that Republican views about the US posture in the world have long been driven by their party’s presidential candidate – something not unusual now given Trump’s positions.

“Having lived as long as I have, I’ve kind of observed the party go up-and-down on foreign involvements, depending usually on who the president is, or the nominee for president, having the biggest impact on public opinion,” McConnell said.

McConnell, who turns 82 next week, has not said if he would run for the GOP leadership spot after his current term concludes at the end of the year. That position could grow more complicated for the Kentucky Republican if Trump wins the presidency, given the two haven’t spoken in more than three years and they had a major falling out after the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack.

McConnell non-committal on Mayorkas trial and touts Senate border deal

Adding to the challenges of governing under Trump: The former president has tried to scuttle the remaining big-ticket items that McConnell has tried to approve, including on border security. Meantime, the House GOP has aligned itself closely with Trump and taken steps that have made some Republican senators uneasy – including impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the problems at the border.

McConnell said he hadn’t taken a position yet on the Mayorkas trial and whether he would vote to dismiss the charges.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” McConnell said, noting that Democrats would move to quickly kill the proceedings. “So I don’t think we’ll have two endless trials like we’ve had recently.”

In the interview, McConnell defended his handling of the push to get a border deal, noting that Republicans had demanded one before green-lighting more Ukraine aid. And he continued to tout the border deal even though it has been heavily criticized by many in his party and ultimately collapsed.

“So I picked (Oklahoma GOP Sen.) James Lankford, who’s really smart, and, as you know, they worked on it for months, came up with a product supported by the border council, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Washington Post editorial page,” McConnell said, calling the plan “clearly an improvement over existing law.”

After Republicans said they wouldn’t support the border deal, McConnell said he “felt strongly” to move on the rest of the aid package without the immigration measures given the situation in Ukraine.

Democrats have seized on the GOP decision to scuttle the border deal – something Democrat Tom Suozzi used in his successful run in the New York special election for a US House seat on Tuesday night.

But McConnell didn’t think the flap would have much of an impact on Senate races.

I think that every one of these races will hash that out one way or another,” McConnell said. “Obviously up in New York, the Democrat did a better job of dealing with it than the Republican, and I think that’ll play out depending upon the quality of the candidates.” And he pivoted to the Senate GOP push to take back the majority: “I think we’re not going to have a candidate quality problem this cycle on our side.”

On the border, McConnell added: “I think President Biden has a real problem on this issue with or without a new law.”

But unlike his House GOP counterparts, McConnell did not take aim at Biden’s memory or mental acuity after concerns were raised by Special Counsel Robert Hur’s damning report last week about his handling of classified records.

“The age issue is obviously front and center for both candidates,” McConnell said when asked about the matter. “And I think they’re going to argue about it.”

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