Inside Donald Trump’s cacophony of crazy stands Mitch McConnell. The Senate Majority Leader has his hand firmly on the dial that determines presidential power, and for McConnell setting that dial is an exercise in pure partisanship.
He became the Senate Majority Leader when the Republicans regained control of the 114th Congress in 2015. With his eye on Republican control of the federal judiciary, McConnell blocked President Obama’s judicial nominations to lower federal courts by refusing to bring them to a Senate vote. The Kentucky Republican turned the dial of presidential power for Obama as close to zero as he could.
The big pay-off came in 2016 when Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia and McConnell refused to move Garland’s nomination forward in the Senate. Republican Donald Trump took office as president in 2017 with a very high number of judicial vacancies to fill, along with the top prize of a Supreme Court seat, all thanks to McConnell. With a Republican in the White House, even incompetent Trump, McConnell brought the dial of presidential power to Spinal Tap’s legendary eleven.
The Unitary Theory of the Executive is supported in some conservative circles and has found its way into recent Republican administrations. Popular in both Bush administrations and now on steroids in the Trump administration, it basically declares the president’s powers under Article II of the Constitution broad enough to give the president far-reaching control of the executive branch and diminishes Congress’s Article I powers to check the executive. As we see this theory of presidential power put into practice, it is the Senate Majority Leader who controls the level of presidential power.
McConnell has pushed hard and fast to allow Trump to fill those vacancies on the federal bench. Neil Gorsuch was sworn in to fill the vacant Scalia seat on April 10, 2017. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court’s swing vote, retired on July 10, 2018 and his seat was filled on October 6, 2018 by Brett Kavanaugh, pushing the Supreme Court perilously to the Right, a triumph for McConnell.
The Republican Senate is now confirming lower court judges to the federal bench who refuse to affirm the landmark ruling against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Wendy Vitter, dodging such an affirmation during her confirmation hearing, was recently confirmed by the Senate as a Federal District Judge in Louisiana. Meanwhile, the Republican drumbeat steps up with draconian anti-abortion legislation in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri, with the goal to do the unthinkable and reverse Roe v. Wade, a long-standing precedent so critical to women. We see the handiwork of McConnell spinning that partisan dial.