Does Mitch McConnell want Trump to win?

Let’s recap McConnell’s choicer soundbites about Trump over the past two months. On May 4th, the day after Trump won Indiana and Cruz and Kasich dropped out, McConnell endorsed him, albeit tepidly. A month later, after watching Trump spend several weeks talking about the “Mexican” judge in his civil suit instead of Hillary Clinton, McConnell urged him at a press conference to get on message. Three days after that, he tore Trump apart in an interview with Bloomberg, admitting “it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues” and hinting that he might yet rescind his endorsement. After that, he stopped taking questions about Trump at his weekly press briefings altogether. Then, two days ago, he was asked on “This Week” whether Trump is qualified to be president. He dodged, saying that’s for voters to decide. And so we arrive at today, with McConnell responding to a question about whether he thinks Trump is a “credible” candidate for the presidency with this withering backhanded reply: “He’s getting closer.”

Question: Does Mitch McConnell want Trump to win? Before you answer, note that when he was asked about Hillary Clinton in this same interview, he described her as “intelligent and capable.” If I told you that Mitch the Knife had described one candidate in a certain race as capable and the other as not quite credible (yet), which one would you assume he’s supporting?

The obvious explanation for his hedging on Trump is that he’s trying to protect his caucus. He had to endorse him for the same reason Paul Ryan did, because it’s unthinkable for a Republican congressional leader to hold out for long on a Republican nominee, but I’m sure McConnell cares more about retaining a Senate majority than he does about Trump winning the White House. If Trump falls far behind Clinton later this summer, McConnell and other top Republicans will shift quickly to a “Save the Senate!” message encouraging ticket-splitting. He’s laying the groundwork for that now: If you’re an independent who’s disgusted with Trump, well, just know that your friendly neighborhood Republican majority leader shares your disgust and strongly believes you shouldn’t punish Republican incumbents for Trump’s sins. So far, it’s working!

Here’s a particularly vivid example out of New Hampshire via, er, ARG:

Clinton leads somewhat comfortably in NH while Republican Kelly Ayotte leads very comfortably. McConnell will take that trade all day long. It’s at least arguable that a Clinton presidency paired with a Republican Senate majority would produce fewer liberal outcomes than a Trump presidency with a Democratic Senate majority would, since Trump is easily the most ideologically unpredictable variable in that matrix of possibilities.

Just one hitch, though: The more McConnell and other big-name Republicans badmouth Trump, the more Republican voters who are skeptical of Trump may take it as a green light to abandon him at the top of the ticket so long as they vote in congressional races. We’ve seen several polls lately showing that Trump’s support among Republicans has begun to lag Clinton’s support among Democrats, making his task this fall that much harder. He needs a unified party to stand a solid chance of winning, but the more unified the party is, the easier it’ll be for Democrats to connect Republicans down-ballot to Trump. McConnell’s trying to play a game right now where he both is and isn’t behind the nominee, having endorsed him formally while spending nearly every opportunity since then tearing him down. He’s taking a serious gamble in betting that attacking Trump will somehow inoculate the Senate instead of helping to send Trump crashing to a landslide defeat that ends up dragging the whole party down with him. I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating that I don’t think the GOP leadership can be “half-pregnant” towards their nominee. Either they’re all-in for a big win or it’s time to cut him loose. The fact that McConnell keeps kneecapping him suggests that he’s already resigned himself to Trump’s defeat and is doing what he can now to create some distance.