Mitch McConnell Is Stepping Down | Crooked Media
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February 28, 2024
What A Day
Mitch McConnell Is Stepping Down

In This Episode

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday that he plans to step down as the Republican Senate leader in November. He has been the longest-serving Senate leader in American history, and is responsible for extensive damage to American politics and life. Congressional reporter Todd Zwillich explains why McConnell is leaving and why now.
  • Both President Biden and former President Trump head to the southern border Wednesday as they jockey on the issue of immigration. Uriel García, immigration reporter for the Texas Tribune, talks about the humanitarian cost of the U.S. government trying to secure the border, and how Texas residents and migrants feel about the plans proposed by the two leading presidential candidates.
  • And in headlines: the Supreme Court will weigh in on the question of presidential immunity for Trump, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would’ve established federal protectors for IVF, and France will likely add the right to abortion to its constitution.

 

Show Notes:

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Thursday, February 29th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.

 

Juanita Tolliver: And I’m Juanita Tolliver and this is What a Day reminding you that leap day is a bonus day so you can use it however you want. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: We decided to do our very favorite thing, which is to release another daily news podcast. So lucky us and lucky all of you. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: I mean, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. [music break]

 

Juanita Tolliver: On today’s show, we tell you what to watch for when both President Biden and Donald Trump make competing visits to the Texas-Mexico border. Plus, scientists say they documented for the first time ever, humpback whales having sex. The plot twist is that Republicans won’t like who is doing the humping. Okay, y’all made me say a pun. [laughing] 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Absolutely not. They will not like it. And Juanita will not like the pun. But first, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced yesterday that he plans to step down from his role as the Republican Senate leader in November. Take a listen to him speaking from the Senate floor. 

 

[clip of Mitch McConnell] I always imagined a moment when I had total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work. A moment where I’m certain I have helped preserve the ideals I so strongly believe. That day arrived today. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Okay, bye. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. [laughter] McConnell said that he plans to stay in the Senate through the end of his term in 2027. He just will no longer be leading his Senate colleagues. So, you know, for everyone getting ready to celebrate, he’s not going so far quite yet. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Right. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: He has been the longest serving Senate leader in American history, and has been known as a ruthlessly strategic politician and leader. He’s also responsible for so much damage to American politics and American life. We will get more into that in just a second. On hearing the news yesterday, President Biden told reporters that he was sorry to see McConnell go, saying quote, “I’ve trusted him and we have a great relationship.” 

 

Juanita Tolliver: I feel like I tend to lead with humanity, but this is where I’m like President Biden, please stop being so nice. Please? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: It’s an exception to the rule. McConnell has also faced a few health issues in the past year, including two incidents in which he appeared to freeze up during news conferences. He also fell and suffered a concussion at a fundraiser last year, though he didn’t cite any of those issues in his announcement. To dig into his departure further, I spoke earlier with Todd Zwillich. He is a longtime congressional reporter based in D.C. and a public radio host. I started by asking what more we know about why McConnell is leaving and why he’s doing this now?

 

Todd Zwillich: We know he’s 82. We know he’s slowing down. We know he’s had a couple of episodes lately, including falls and then those freezes, pauses, which–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: All point to the boat we’re all in, which is normal aging. And you get to the end of a career. So we know that. The other thing we know is that McConnell, for the first time in his long leadership career, is bleeding support in the Senate Republican Conference, evidenced by the whole fight over Ukraine, emergency funding for their defense against Russia’s invasion and aid for Israel and Gaza and the and all the rest of it. But lots of Republicans voted against it. That’s a pretty strong indication that things are changing. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Is there a natural successor lined up to him, or is it kind of anyone’s game at this point? 

 

Todd Zwillich: I can predict this for you. Priyanka. The next Senate Republican leader will be named John. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: All right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: There will be a white guy named John. [laughter] Uh. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Perfect. 

 

Todd Zwillich: John Thune uh from North Dakota, who’s the current number two in the Senate. John Cornyn, Republican from Texas, and John Barrasso, who’s from Wyoming. All three of these John’s are the current Senate Republican leadership right now. They’ve all expressed an interest in succeeding McConnell at a certain point. And I think you can pick from one of them who are going to be in contention when there’s finally a leadership election after the November elections. Also, what could happen if Donald Trump were to win the election is he could try to pick who he wants. You know–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: Trump has a way, that kind of thing traditionally doesn’t fly in the Senate. The Senate traditionally hates outside influence of any kind on its prerogatives and its leadership elections. Donald Trump has changed a lot of these norms. So I say it’s going to be a white guy named John. If Donald Trump can find an alternative white John, maybe he’ll want a name one. Maybe he’ll want to name JD Vance, I don’t know. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: We’ll come back to more on Trump in just a second. But looking back over the almost two decades that McConnell has been the Republican leader in the Senate, he has become very disliked by many people. But many of those same people still acknowledge that the man knew what he was doing. So, you know, what can you tell us about McConnell’s influence and what he’s accomplished in this role? 

 

Todd Zwillich: It was Mitch McConnell who presided over the weaponizing of the debt limit the first time, 2011, when Republicans with a Democrat in the White House, when Republicans in the Senate took the debt limit hostage as a legislative tool, you will give us what we want on spending concessions on major tax considerations and spending concessions, or we will not raise the debt limit, and we will tank the American economy. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: Because a Democrat is in the White House. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 

 

Todd Zwillich: And Mitch McConnell gave interviews after that. Mitch McConnell said that a lot of Republicans learned from that episode that the debt limit was a hostage worth shooting. That came from Mitch McConnell, of course let’s not spend too much time recapping the whole sordid history of Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: By Barack Obama, which basically stole that seat and made sure as soon as Donald Trump was elected that Neil Gorsuch had the seat. It is widely viewed as a stolen seat. But even if you don’t like that adjective, it was McConnell who basically sent the message through these actions that we will delegitimize Barack Obama’s constitutional power. We will not even give his pick a hearing. We will install our own. And then years later, when Donald Trump is at the end of his presidency, we will 100% reverse course and give the seat to Amy Coney Barrett. It’s that kind of delegitimizing politics where you de-legitimize the mandates of your opponents that I think McConnell really, really perfected in the Senate. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Absolutely. And I mean, can we talk about the consequences of his efforts to kind of jam conservatives on to the bench? You know, what we’ve seen and what we will continue to see, because that’s lasting far beyond McConnell’s time in the Senate. 

 

Todd Zwillich: That’s a whole other hour conversation Priyanka, you just put your finger on it. [laugh] Citizens United, which is McConnell’s number one darling piece of policy through his whole career, is getting rid of campaign finance reform in any form and making sure that big money, dark money, PACs and super PACs rule politics. Roe v Wade and Dobbs directly, of course, springs from McConnell’s ability in his joining powers, joining forces with Donald Trump after his election to confirm Republican judges to get rid of the Supreme Court filibuster in the Senate. So the Supreme Court justices are approved with 50 votes instead of 60 votes. That’s a 6-3 conservative majority on the court. That’s Dobbs. His legacy on the court, I’m glad you brought it up, is going to far outlive his stint as majority leader on the Senate and probably–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: –his life. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Oh, yes, we will be dealing with the mess. And I know you mentioned Trump earlier. Let’s talk about McConnell’s relationship with Trump and what it’s like today. I mean, there were reports earlier in the week that he might endorse Trump. They famously don’t like each other. Is there any reason to think that will happen now? 

 

Todd Zwillich: If I had to put my money on it, I would say McConnell probably will endorse Trump out of loyalty to Republicans. But I don’t know for sure. But I do think, you know where we started when we talked about the why, I think that this has a big part in the explanation as to why, right now. Mitch McConnell directly and accurately blamed Donald Trump for January 6th. He laid responsibility–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: –squarely at his feet. He could have gotten on board with impeachment after January 6th. He chose not to. And so here we are. And I think now we’re at a point where Mitch McConnell was facing pretty much an untenable situation in his relationship with Donald Trump. He either endorses him for president and does so with glaring hypocrisy, given that he was the one who said impeachment is not appropriate. That’s what the criminal courts are for. It was Mitch McConnell–

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: –who said criminal conviction is the remedy here. Well, criminal conviction is now part of the potential reality. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 

 

Todd Zwillich: And for Mitch McConnell to have endorsed Trump now would have been a glaring piece of hypocrisy. And had he not endorsed, he risks absolute war with Donald Trump. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 

 

Todd Zwillich: Probably a lack of support in the Republican Conference and an ignominious end to an otherwise at least to traditional Republicans, illustrious career. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That is congressional reporter Todd Zwillich out of Washington. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Now, turning to the southern border, both President Biden and former President Trump are headed there today. Separately, of course, because ain’t nobody carpooling to Texas with Trump like yikes. [laughter] Biden is meeting with law enforcement officials in Brownsville, Texas, and Trump will be about 300 miles away in Eagle Pass, Texas. Was this planned? Well, here’s Biden’s comment on why he’s going now. 

 

[clip of President Joe Biden] [indistinct talking] I’ve been planning to go Thursday. What I didn’t know is that my good friend apparently is going. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Yikes. [laughing] I know that time he was very much kidding. It is also important to note the significance of each town Biden and Trump are visiting. For example, Eagle Pass is the location where there have been higher rates of border crossings, and it’s where Governor Greg Abbott has deployed extreme border practices like the fencing and buoys in the water and barbed wire. It’s also the location of a number of migrant deaths as of late, and where Texas border officials have blocked U.S. Border Patrol agents from accessing parts of the US-Mexico border, which the Biden administration has been fighting in court. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Right. I mean, of course, Biden and Trump are both vying for the presidency, and they are also vying to be the top candidate on the issue of immigration, which has become increasingly important to people. As we’ve been covering on WAD it’s also been a very chaotic mess in Congress. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Truly a hot mess. And their visits are also timely. A Gallup poll from earlier this week shows that immigration is now the top issue for voters ahead of the 2024 election, for the first time since 2019. 28% of Americans now consider immigration the most important problem in the nation, ahead of the government and the economy. Now, immigration is a complicated issue in the U.S., one that is typically framed around national security. But the humanitarian aspect is just as important to talk about. Several first responders from Eagle Pass talked with NBC news last week about how traumatizing it’s been for them to recover bodies of so many migrants trying to cross the border. Here’s the chief of the fire department, Manuel Mallo. 

 

[clip of Manuel Mallo] They see decomposing bodies. They see children that have drowned. And if you ever see that, I can give you an image of that. Babies two months old, with their eyes half open, their mouth full of mud, their ears full of mud, or they’ve been stuck on the side of the river. That’s what these guys are seeing. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: I feel like this is a critical reminder to not underestimate the very real human toll, physical toll, emotional toll that is happening with every step from a migrant to try to seek a better life like this is what it is. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Absolutely. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: I got to talk with Uriel García. He’s an immigration reporter from the Texas Tribune, and I asked him how border residents and migrants are feeling about how the current administration and the one before it, have handled the humanitarian crisis at the border. 

 

Uriel García When we see politicians debate the issue of immigration, we forget that we’re talking about human beings at the end of the day. And not to dismiss the trauma that first responders see, because that is trauma that they’re seeing. But at the same time, the trauma and the pain that migrants are going through, and people might be asking, well, why don’t they just come legally, right? Well, immigration is complex. One simple response to that is that there are very limited and narrow avenues for someone to come to the United States legally and safely. People don’t choose to come to the U.S. the way they’re doing, which are very dangerous conditions. They’re doing it because they’ve run out of options. And as of right now, someone who wants to seek asylum is being turned away at legal ports of entries unless they made an appointment in advance. And again, those appointments are limited. They’re limited to 1400 appointments across the whole US Mexico border. So people who are fleeing violence, political corruption, economies that have been destroyed don’t have time to make an appointment. This is an emergency. And I think the way that the Biden administration has responded again, is not any different than what other administrations have responded, which is that’s mostly been enforcement. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: And sometimes we do see in the local communities and border towns an outpouring of humane support, whether it’s from churches or local nonprofit organizations. Talk to me a little bit about what you’ve heard from community leaders and residents in some of these border towns about how they’re trying to provide an immediate response to the very real humanitarian crisis that migrants are experiencing. 

 

Uriel García Alright. To answer that question, I’m going to do it from the perspective of El Paso, which is where I live in and I am based. El Paso has always historically had migration coming through here. It is literally in the name. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Mm. Yes. The pass. Yes. 

 

Uriel García So the way that people uh elected officials here and non-government organizations respond to what some politician described as waves or influx of migrants is that the first reaction is how do we help? At the same time, there are border towns who do feel overwhelmed because they are not used to seeing the high number of migrants and they don’t have the resources or the funding to be able to provide shelter, space. And ultimately, what some of these border town officials say is that it’s a federal government responsibility. And so if the federal government knows that this is happening, then the federal government needs to step up and provide shelter and provide space and be able to find a way to make people come here legally. Of course, it’s more complex than that, because I think everybody wants people to come here legally, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum. The problem is that there’s no political will to want to solve the issue. Trump explicitly told House Republicans not to approve this latest bipartisan immigration bill. Right. It is an easy thing to campaign on, on both sides. And at the end of the day, what’s at stake here is uh human suffering. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Right. And thank you for bringing it back to solutions, because let’s be real, in that bipartisan agreement, Republicans got a lot of very extreme policy components added into that language. Sticking to the politics of this moment, though, how can today’s visits from both Biden and Trump really impact their campaigns around the issues of immigration, especially considering voter engagement in Texas and across the country on Super Tuesday? 

 

Uriel García I think it would be a good opportunity to be able to provide some solutions, right? Even though there’s a lot of political rhetoric being thrown around, some of that political rhetoric is not based in reality. And the problem with that is that we are really overlooking what the issues are, some of the material issues that are fixable. I think what makes the issue of immigration complicated, it’s not so much sometimes the jargon or the way the laws are written, but also the politics around it. Right? And there’s a lot of blame being thrown around. I don’t expect that this visit is going to be monumental, and that all of a sudden both candidates are going to come to an agreement or provide solutions. Like I said earlier, both parties use the issue to uh campaign against each other. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: That was my conversation with Uriel García, an immigration reporter from the Texas Tribune. And that’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK] 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 

 

[sung] Headlines. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Some major updates out of the always busy Donald Trump legal drama complex. First, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to weigh in on whether presidential immunity protects Trump from being prosecuted for his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. This is a major win for the former president, who sought Supreme Court intervention earlier this month after a lower court in D.C. roundly rejected his immunity argument, which his legal team advanced in the context of special Counsel Jack Smith’s election subversion trial. For those who wanted to see Trump be held accountable for his shockingly anti-democratic conduct before the November election, this is bad news. The Supreme Court has put Jack Smith’s trial on pause, and the justices won’t begin to evaluate Trump’s immunity claim until April 22nd, which the New York Times estimates will push back the resumption of his criminal trial until late September or October. So get ready for a very rough time in the weeks leading up to the November election. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: I don’t like an October surprise. No no no. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Also yesterday, an Illinois judge ordered Trump be removed from the state’s primary ballot, citing the insurrection clause in the 14th Amendment. But the judge put her own order on hold, anticipating an appeal. The Supreme Court is currently considering a similar challenge to Trump’s eligibility from Colorado. Wrapping up the Trump crimes beat, at least for today, there’s some happy news for those of us that like to see the former president pay, literally. An appellate court judge in New York ruled yesterday that Trump cannot halt the $454 million financial penalty he’s received in the state for shady business dealings. Trump will appeal yet again next month to a five judge panel. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That to me, a little bit delicious. But I will say, hats off to you Juanita. You basically did an entire podcast yourself in one headline so. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Let’s just say I took a big swig of water, folks. [laughter]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Accomplishing a lot with your one extra day. For everyone who thought that the sane Republicans were in the Senate, Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi proved you wrong yet again yesterday when she blocked a bill that would have established federal protections for IVF and other fertility treatments. The bill was introduced by Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, who has had two daughters via IVF, in the wake of the recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos can be considered children. Duckworth tried to get the bill passed through a procedure that allowed any one senator to object and to stop it from passing. Following Alabama’s widely unpopular decision, some Republicans scrambled to make it seem like the party isn’t that extreme on these issues and to voice their support for IVF. But this method of trying to get it passed essentially put their hypocrisy on full display, and it shows us all how parts of the Republican Party really feel. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Yeah, there’s no way to run away from this. Y’all did this because, you know you follow after Trump, who also takes full credit for overturning Roe v Wade. So there you go. The French Senate approved a bill to add the right to abortion to the Constitution yesterday. The measure now goes before a joint session of Parliament, whose approval of it is widely seen as a foregone conclusion. If the parliamentary vote goes the way it’s expected to, France will become the first country in the world to constitutionally ensure access to abortion procedures, and I feel like– 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Wow. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: They are in a reproductive heaven over there in France. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Truly. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Now, abortion is not under threat in France. Support for reproductive choice is so uncontroversial there that this bill attracted rare cross-party support. So if you’re wondering why this came up at all, it’s at least partly thanks to our own right wing politicians here in the US of A. After Roe v Wade was overturned in 2022, several French political parties began pushing for a constitutional change so that no future government could limit abortion access there. And I’m jealous. I’m really, really jealous. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Truly jealous. They get croissants, they get abortion access, we get nothing. We get nothing. [laugh] And finally, an important update for nature lovers. Two humpback whales stayed true to their name when they were photographed having sex, becoming the first of their species to ever be caught in the act. These historic lewd photos were captured back in 2022, but they were only published this week in the journal Marine Mammal Science. Even though recording equipment has been around for a while now and whales for even longer than that, the journal’s authors stated that humpback whale sexual behavior has been, quote, “mostly a mystery until now.” To make the discovery even more special, the two whales whose act of love is now a part of science history were both males. The researchers behind this study suggested that same sex copulation between whales could provide a way to form social alliances, or perhaps to assert dominance. Another theory we’ve been batting around, it could just be for fun. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Casual mammals hooking up, I’m into it. [laugh] I also wonder what the conversation was like between the scientists watching. Like, what were they asking each other? Were they like screaming at this moment happening in front of them? I want to know. [laugh]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: God only knows. I don’t know if I want to know. [laughter] I mean, I hope these whales are okay with their copulation being just available for human consumption now. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Right. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: I don’t know. And those are the headlines. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, go whale watching and tell your friends to listen. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: And if you’re into reading and not just checks written by Trump to the state of New York like me, What a day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Juanita Tolliver.

 

Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi.

 

[spoken together] And do something fun for leap day!

 

Juanita Tolliver: What are you going to do Priyanka? 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: I already did my fun activity. I already made the podcast. [laughter] Probably just make another one. [laugh] I’ll probably get myself a little treat if we’re being honest, but like the threshold is low for what I need to do to get a treat. 

 

Juanita Tolliver: Treat yourself. 

 

Priyanka Aribindi: Exactly. [laughter] [music break]

 

Juanita Tolliver: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Jon Millstein, Greg Walters, and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Leo Duran and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.