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Mitch McConnell Says He's Stepping Down as GOP Leader in November. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 28, 2024 - 12:30   ET




DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Big breaking news at this moment, we are told that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader right now and he has been the leader since 2007 of the Senate Republicans, will announce shortly on the floor of the U.S. Senate that he is going to step down as leader. We expect that he will say he will stay on through this year's election. Again, this is very, very big news. This is according to a source familiar with his plans. We do know that his office has formally said that he is going to make extended remarks on the Senate floor.

You see the Senate floor right now. We are watching and waiting for McConnell to come out. He just turned 82 years old. He is the longest serving leader in the United States Senate historically, and that has been a milestone that he has held onto for now a couple of years, right, Jeff Zeleny? I have my panel here. Were waiting for Manu Raju to get to the camera. And as we wait for him -- oh, Manu, you're there? Manu, can you feel the sort of marble shaking as this news is going around the United States Capitol?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No question. This is a humungous moment in Republican politics and really a titan of the United States Senate, someone who has been instrumental in driving the Republican agenda for the past two decades, serving longer than any party leader in the United States Senate history, about to announce matter of moments, this is it, his time is done as Republican leader.

BASH: Manu, we are going to hear -- Manu, Senate McConnell is talking now.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY) MINORITY LEADER: -- and we lost younger sister, Angela, just a few weeks ago. When you lose, a lot go on (ph), particularly at a young age, there's a certain introspection that accompanies the grieving process. Perhaps it is God's way of reminding you of your own life's journey to prioritize the impact of the world that we will all inevitably leave behind.

I turned 82 last week, the end of my contributions are closer than I'd prefer. My career in the United States Senate began amidst the Reagan revolution. The truth is, when I got here, I was just happy that anybody remembered my name. President Reagan called me Michel Donald, close enough I thought. My wife Elaine and I got married on President Reagan's birthday, February 6th. It's probably not the most romantic thing to admit, but Reagan meant a lot to both of us.

31 years, Elaine has been the love of my life and I'm eternally grateful to have her by my side. I think back to my first days in the Senate with deep appreciation for the time that helped shape my view of the world. I'm unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world. That's why I worked so hard to get the national security package passed earlier this month.

Believed me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults, misunderstanding politics is not one of them. that said, I believe more strongly than ever that America's global leadership is essential to preserving the shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan discussed. As long as I'm drawing breath on this earth, I will defend American exceptionalism.


MCCONNELL: So, as I've been thinking about when I would deliver some news to the Senate, I always imagined a moment when I have total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work. A moment when I'm certain I have helped preserve the ideals I so strongly believe. That day arrived today. My goals when I was narrowly elected to the Senate back in 1984 were fairly modest. Do a good job to the people of Kentucky and convince them that by doing so, they might rehire me for a second term. That was it. That was the plan.

If you would have told me 40 years later, that I would stand before you as the longest serving Senate leader in American history, frankly, I would've thought you had lost your mind. I have the honor of representing Kentucky and the Senate longer than anyone else in our state's history. I just never could have imagined, never could have imagined that happening when I arrived here in 1984 at 42.

I'm filled with heartfelt gratitude and humility for the opportunity. But now, it's 2024. I'm now 82. As Ecclesiastes tells us, "To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven." To serve Kentucky in the Senate has been the honor of my life, to lead my Republican colleagues has been the highest privilege.

But, one of life's most under-appreciated talents is to know when it's time to move on to life's next chapter. So, I stand before you today, Mr. President and my colleagues, to say this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate.

I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. However, I'll complete my job my colleagues have given me until we select a new leader in November and they take the helm next January. I'll finish the job that people of Kentucky hired me to do as well, albeit from a different seat, and I'm actually looking forward to that. So, it is time for me to think about another season.

I love the Senate (inaudible). There may be more distinguished members of this party throughout our history, but I doubt there were any with any more admiration of the Senate. After all this time, I still get a thrill walking into the Capitol and especially on this venerable floor, knowing that we, each of us, have the honor to represent our states and do the important work of our country. But farther (ph) time remains undefeated. I'm no longer the young man sitting in the back, hoping colleagues would remember my name. It's time for the next generation of leadership.

As Henry Clay said in this very body in 1850, the Constitution of the United States was not made merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity -- unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity. So time rolls on. There'll be a new custodian of this great institution next year. You probably should know, I'm trying (ph) to turn this job over to the Republican majority leader. I have full confidence in my conference to choose my replacement and lead our country forward.

There'll be other times to reminisce. I'm immensely proud of the accomplishments I've played some role in obtaining for the American people.


MCCONNELL: Today, it's not today to discuss all of that because, as I said earlier, I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. There are many challenges we must meet to deliver for the American people and each will have my full effort and attention. I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappointed my critics and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm with which they've become accustomed.

So to my colleagues, thank you for entrusting me with our success. It's been an honor to work with each of you. There'll be plenty of time to express my gratitude in greater detail as I sprint towards the finish line, which is now in sight. I yield the floor.


BASH: Moment in history. You're watching as the U.S. Senate gives the longest serving party leader in the U.S. Senate a round of applause after he makes an announcement that he is going to step down from his post in leadership after the November election of this year. Quite emotional for Mitch -- for anybody really, but particularly for Mitch McConnell who doesn't exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. But he said that he is going towards the finish line, which is now in sight.

I want to bring in Manu Raju, who is there and has covered Mitch McConnell maybe almost as long as I have, but the finish line is way further away from your vision than mine, Manu. But the fact that he said I still have enough gas in my tank to disappoint my critics, and I intend to do that with enthusiasm, the enthusiasm that they've been accustomed to, that which is one of the sort of turns of phrase that enraptured and encapsulated, Manu, so much of his tenure, particularly in recent years, because it used to be that much of the criticism that he got was from across the aisle.

RAJU: Yeah.

BASH: And now, it's almost exclusively -- I mean, he certainly as critics from Democratic Senators and other members, but it's from within his own party because of his feelings about Donald Trump and his worldview.

RAJU: Yeah, so much has changed, in a lot of ways the Republican Party has changed underneath him and he sort of alluded to that in his comments saying that he knows the politics have changed within his party. He --of course, when he was the Republican leader under Barack Obama, he gave Barack Obama fits. He led the charge against Obamacare. He took pride in rallying the GOP conference to try to over -- to repeal Obamacare day after day after day, as they were trying to put that piece of legislation together.

He, of course, was centrally responsible for shifting the Supreme Court to the right, keeping vacant, some of them never been done before. A Supreme Court seat, keeping that vacant. Barack Obama wanted Merrick Garland to fill that seat. Instead, Donald Trump came in, named Neil Gorsuch to the seat when he became president. McConnell has said that that was one of his crowning achievements while in office and then moving forward on getting Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court and Amy Coney Barrett in the aftermath of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing, even though he had said he would not confirm one nominee in an election year, did so with another in another election year. That infuriated Democrats.

But in this Trump -- post-Trump era and particularly in this Congress, he has worked with Democrats. That has infuriated Republicans. He voted for the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the only Republican member in his delegation to do that. He supported the bipartisan gun legislation that also is something that was simply not supported by most Republicans and perhaps for us, note, most significantly been crosswise with Donald Trump in the aftermath of January 6th, that speech that he gave on the Senate floor after voting to acquit Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. But then saying that, Donald Trump is morally and practically responsible for January 6. That has cost him as this -- any support with Donald Trump,

Trump has bashed him repeatedly on the campaign trail since Trump has said, frankly, racist things about Elaine Chao, his wife, a former Trump cabinet member, someone a Taiwanese immigrant, and they have not talked in more than three years. McConnell still has not endorsed Donald Trump.


RAJU: But one thing too has been very clear that criticism within the GOP, within the Senate GOP conference is still a small faction, but it's been louder than any time in his tenure as Republican leader, and he certainly knows that. And Dana, this is going to open up a contested leadership race that will drive the future direction of the Republican Party.

Look for the three Republican Senator -- John Thune, who is currently the number two Republican Senator; John Cornyn, a former Republican whip; and John Barrasso, the number three Republican Senator. All of them could run for this spot in a secret ballot election between -- that will happen after November. So, a lot of jockeying will happen between now and then as members of Congress, the Senators, grapple with this historic moment. BASH: Yeah, the battle of the Johns. Wow, this is certainly quite a moment. Manu, standby, because I want to bring in Scott Jennings. He is a CNN contributor and a longtime adviser to Mitch McConnell. Before, he was formal; and now, he's informal. And I would say, Scott, it's probably fair to they say, a very close friend.

I mentioned to Manu that I don't remember -- we were talking here. I've seen Senator McConnell get sort of emotional, understandably so, when longtime colleagues pass away. But, he -- his voice was cracking throughout this entire speech. It was obviously not easy for him to give. And one of the many lines that struck me, Scott, was him -- when he talked about his age and the fact that it's time for him to move on. No longer, he said -- he's no longer the young man standing in the back, hoping people remember my name. It's time for the next generation of leadership. Scott?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (via telephone): Yes. Listening to his speech today, I was struck by that as well, that he is sort of acknowledging what a lot of Americans are feeling about their government right now. And you also heard him say that he has many flaws, but failure to understand politics is not one of them. And I think that's part of our politics and it's part of our political conversation.

The emotion you heard in his voice is fully related to just how much he reveres the institution. And I think if there's one hallmark of his time in office, it's been defend, serve (ph) in protection of the institution and he cares about it so deeply because as you said, it's been as life. I do want to point out for those who are unfamiliar with the Senate terms, he is not up for re-election this year and his term doesn't run out until 2026.

My expectation and he made this clear I think, is that he plans to stay in office, finish his term. I think he would likely be in line to be Chairman of Appropriations possibly in the next congress, maybe even have a role in setting defense --

BASH: Right.

JENNINGS (via telephone): -- spending policy. So I think one issue that is so deeply on his mind right now, is America's role in the world and whether we are going to continue to be a superpower that stands up against bullies and dictators, and the bad actors on planet earth.

BASH: Yeah.

JENNINGS (via telephone): And I think that, that has been weighing on him, I know personally. And in some ways, he really has become the heir to the traditional Reagan mantle of the Republican Party. I know it's not in vogue right now, but for a lot of us who've been working for him for 28 years, for me, his growth into the leadership mantle of the Reagan view of what the United States of America is supposed to be as a global superpower has really been something to behold. And I know how seriously he takes it. BASH: Yeah, and that's what he was referring to when he said that he has many faults, misunderstanding politics is not one of them, referring to the fact that his party is not there, Scott, his party is not there. Well, some people in his party are there, but for the most part, that old Reagan keeping America on the forefront, the leader of the free world as he put it.

So, I have to ask you, Scott, about timing because it's now even more clear than before that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell do not get along and that is maybe the understatement of the day, week or month. And there is already pressure on -- was already pressure on McConnell to endorse Trump and we can talk about that in a minute, but how much of the reality of Trump being the leader of the party in a more formal way, did that push Mitch McConnell to make this decision now?

JENNINGS (via telephone): Well, I don't actually think it had any effect on him really. He has been, as you mentioned, grappling with a couple of issues. Number one is his own age and number two, this family tragedy that the McConnells have suffered recently, which just happened a couple of weeks ago, which kind of happened a little under the radar.


JENNINGS (via telephone): It wasn't widely reported, but it certainly was a devastating moment for them. But also, I think he's been mulling this over for some months. I mean, as he pointed out, he just turned 82 years old and he has obviously been the longest serving leader in Senate history. We are not talking about Senate Republicans, we are talking about the history of the United States of America. He's been doing this job which, as you know, is extremely stressful and hard to do for longer than anyone has ever done it. He's also the longest serving Senator in the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky which is also no small feat.

And so, I think -- I think a combination of all of that over the last few months led him to this decision. But I actually don't think it had anything at all to do with Donald Trump. And I also think that there are some things he has left that he wants to accomplish that perhaps he may be in a better position to accomplish if he's not the leader and he is in a policy-making role such as Appropriations Chairman. I think he may be in a better position to accomplish those goals and maybe a little freer to speak out --

BASH: Yeah.

JENNINGS (via telephone): -- about what he thinks the United States' role in the world should be. When you're the Senate leader, when you're the leader of any political conference, you are a little bit shackled on what you can do personally.

BASH: Sure.

JENNINGS (via telephone): But of course, that comes off when you lay down the mantle of leadership. BASH: Sure. Scott, thank you so much for hopping on the phone and you know Mitch McConnell as well as maybe better than anyone who I know in the realm of politics, and certainly personally. Scott, appreciate it.

Back with the panel here. Jeff Zeleny, you have covered Mitch McConnell for a long time as well. And let's just pick up on the Trump factor. He was very critical of Donald Trump after, well, even before January 6, but certainly after January 6. And Manu mentioned this, it has led to some very, very harsh, inappropriate, downright racist comments from Donald Trump about his wife, who by the way, Elaine Chao, served in the Trump Administration until she quit because of her anger about January 6th.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And they've not, as Manu said, spoken in three years. Scott says the timing is not connected. Certainly, he as an insider knows that, but the timing is still coming at a time when we take stock of his tenure in the Senate. Addison Mitch McConnell, born in Alabama, moved to Kentucky. At two-years-old had polio, did not think he would ever be able to walk, was a Senate page and just rose through the ranks. And really, if you think about his time, he has spanned the Reagan era through the Trump era, unlike anyone else. And that is where he is stepping aside now as leader in November.

We will see if Trump gives him the space to do that or calls on him to do so sooner, but I think his worldview is something that has largely vanished from that Senate Republican conference, which is really remarkable. One thing he always did was win his own races and he vowed -- one thing I can think of that he talked about often that he did not succeed, was making Barack Obama a one-term president. That's what he wanted to do back in 2009, he told my friend and colleague, Carl Hulse of The New York Times, that that was his goal and didn't do that, of course. But, we could talk for hours about his legacy.

BASH: Because it's so long. And as much as Democrats appreciate him being side-by-side with President Biden, right now, on a whole host of issues from Infrastructure Bill to now, the push for funding for Ukraine and Israel as well, most of them will never forgive him for just -- let's be honest -- inventing new rules to keep Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's final nominee for the Supreme Court, off the bench. Didn't even give them a hearing.

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, EARLY 202 CO-AUTHOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: McConnell has a long, extremely partisan history. He has not been someone who has often reached across the line, across the aisle. He is someone who has looked out for the political interests of himself and mostly his party, and maintaining a Senate majority, including that extremely the controversial decision to just ignore Merrick Garland's nomination and then do the exact opposite when he -- when Trump was in the presidency with Amy Coney Barrett.

But, it also exposes the evolution not only of McConnell, but also the Republican Party. The fact that now, McConnell said just a few weeks ago at the sticks that he is much more aligned with Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden than he is with many in his own party, especially on issues of foreign policy and Ukraine. And he has been challenged -- increasing challenged by his party. So, this is going to -- this is a very pivotal time of his stepping down for the Republican Party.


BASH: You've covered the Kentucky delegation for awhile.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: I did. So, I covered him mostly through the lens of being Kentucky's senior Senator, but he would return home and take a lot of pride in the strategic choices that he made. You have to remember that under the Trump Administration, you really have to credit McConnell -- Republicans have to credit McConnell for remaking the federal judiciary.

There is strategic discipline there. There's a strategic ruthlessness there. And though Republicans now, may dismiss him as a globalist because he's no longer ideologically in line with where the party is headed, a lot of their policy accomplishments, they wouldn't have been able to achieve without his discipline. And so, as we look to the future of this party now, under the leadership of Trump, you have to wonder, can they still be as successful in trying to advance some of these conservative policy goals without that level of discipline that McConnell offered to the real chagrin of Democrats.

BASH: Yeah.

MCKEND: He really anchored (ph) Democrats.

BASH: You know, I mean, you say discipline and the one thing we haven't mentioned because you said we could like sit here for two hours and not even scratch the surface, but his singular focus while Donald Trump was president, not just the Supreme Court, but packing all of the federal courts with as many conservatives as possible because he understands and has understood for a very long time that that is really the ultimate way to further conservative philosophy.

ZELENY: Because presidents come and go.

BASH: Right.

ZELENY: But federal judges and in his case, Senate leaders often do not. But boy, this is the beginning of the end of an era. He's still -- he's not going anywhere. So -- and what his top, obviously, goal is, is to help Republicans win control of the Senate. That's why, I think, all of this is an open question to see how the leader of the party, Donald Trump, responds to all this. If he's able to hold on to his position, there's a lot of churn underneath him right now.

BASH: And he's been leader for many cycles where he was like Charlie Brown with the football. He thought he was going to become majority leader and then first, it was the tea party, then it was Trump-ism running candidates that didn't get elected in purplish states.

Thank you all. Appreciate it. Thank you so much for joining "Inside Politics." Big news during this hour, Mitch McConnell saying that he's stepping down as Republican leader in November. Much more on that and all the other political news today. "CNN News Central" starts after the break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)