Ira Shapiro predicts dark legacy for McConnell in The Betrayal — The Blueprint

While Shapiro covers the Senate’s response to the Trump administration in chronological order, somehow his book reads as a horror story that continues devolving until the insurrectionist denouement.

Stephen Wentzell — May 26, 2022

Fewer presidencies have resulted in more controversy than that of Donald Trump. From firing the FBI director and mischaracterizing the Mueller Report, to seating three Supreme Court justices and surviving two impeachments, Trump survived scandal after scandal.

How a president can withstand such devastating derelictions of duty is the subject of Ira Shapiro’s new book, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, where Shapiro makes the case that McConnell aided and abetted the Trump presidency to the bitter end.

Shapiro is uniquely positioned to write about McConnell’s leadership after spending more than a decade working in senior positions in the U.S. Senate as well as serving as Bill Clinton’s chief trade negotiator with Canada and Japan. Overall, Shapiro spent 45 years in Washington focusing on international trade and national politics.

While Shapiro covers the Senate’s response to the Trump administration in chronological order, somehow his book reads as a horror story that continues devolving until the insurrectionist denouement.

Shapiro has written two other books about the Senate, but in an interview with The Blueprint, he explained what sets The Betrayal apart from the others.

The idea for The Betrayal came months before the Jan. 6 insurrection, during the summer of 2020. During this time, Shapiro was calling for governors to take the lead in forcing Trump to resign, referring to the former Trump Steaks creator as “an unhinged president during a pandemic,” who was spewing misinformation, rallying Republican governors against Blue State governors, and ignoring the experts on COVID-19.

But for Shapiro, there was something even more worrisome at hand: Trump was signalling he wasn’t going to respect the results of the election.

“I think the Trump presidency was a catastrophe for the country [but] the catastrophic failure of government was the Senate,” Shapiro said. “They’re the ones who were supposed to check the president.”

While the Senate’s purpose has always been to keep checks and balances on the presidency, McConnell has weaponized the institution to protect the Republican party and its president at all costs.

“Most senators show a willingness to balance their commitment to the party with their own independent judgment,” Shapiro noted, adding their six-year terms provide senators with more independence than members of Congress who serve for two years at a time.

Shapiro’s book begins with three distinct quotes, but for this reviewer, the most powerful of all came from George Ball in 1964: “He who rides the tiger cannot choose where he dismounts.”

The Betrayal captures the highs and lows of McConnell’s career, with Shapiro recognizing that few political figures have had such a significant impact on American politics as the current Senate Minority Leader.

But that legacy, Shapiro explains, is mired by a dereliction of duty and an underestimation of Trump’s depravity. Calling McConnell “an exceptionally skillful politician [and] a master strategist,” he says McConnell has been undeniably effective at accomplishing his political goals. Unfortunately, Shapiro added, those accomplishments have been to his personal benefit and Republican power, “at a great cost to the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the United States as a nation.”

While Shapiro condemns the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, he recognizes that many of them believed they were doing something patriotic simply because their president asked them to.

The Betrayal concludes in the aftermath of Jan. 6, with McConnell speaking out vehemently against Trump in public but voting to acquit the president when push comes to shove. For Shapiro, the insurrection only strengthened his argument, noting that Republican senators couldn’t bring themselves to convict Trump even after their lives were put in danger by the domestic terrorists incited by their president.

Ending the filibuster and a return to governing with conscience

Over the years, the filibuster has become one of McConnell’s greatest political weapons. By requiring 60 votes to end debate, McConnell has prevented legislation on voting rights, pandemic supports, and even a Supreme Court Justice nominee’s confirmation in 2016.

Now, Shapiro says, is the time to get rid of the filibuster, saying the tool has become “corrupted over time.”

“I grew up at a time in the Senate working there when filibusters, we like to say, were real but rare,” he said.

While many pundits fear that ending the filibuster could backfire on Democrats if Trump wins a second term in 2024, Shapiro believes the only way to stop them is “with some people of conscience.”

“If you have an institution that’s blocking government action, year after year, that’s not a workable institution,” he explained.

In his book, Shapiro referred to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation—which took place after millions of Americans had already voted in the 2020 Presidential election—as the Banana Republic Confirmation.

“I found it to be a terrible act and shockingly disconnected from anything resembling our democracy,” Shapiro told me. While he explained that McConnell’s blocking of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court was an act of unprecedented hardball, arguably, at least the voters had some say in deciding the next justice. “In this case, [McConnell] took that away from the voters, ramming through a confirmation eight days before election day, after 50 million people had already voted,” he said.

Shapiro said that after finishing his second book on the Senate in 2018, he felt a moderate and cautious sense of optimism that Congress could rise to the challenges posed by Trump. Led by the political independence of Republicans like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and the late John McCain, Shapiro believed there was a core group of Republicans—that occasionally included Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski—who would be enough to keep Trump in check. That optimism, while admittedly unjustified, served as the blueprint for The Betrayal.

“One thing I learned was that I had an idealized view of the Senate and Senators,” Shapiro told me. “Based on my experience and what I had seen, heard, and learned, I would have thought if things got bad enough, they would step up. And that was wrong.”

Ultimately, Shapiro says he wrote The Betrayal in an effort to play some small part in the fight for democracy. In a plea to the GOP, Shapiro urged Republicans to strive to be their best selves rather than do things they consciously know are both wrong and anti-democratic.

Will they heed Shapiro’s call? Only time will tell.

Longtime Senate staffer sears McConnell and his caucus in ‘The Betrayal’ — JPR

Published May 16, 2022 at 10:01 AM PDT

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is comfortable using all the tools at his disposal to achieve the goals of his Republican caucus.

Ira Shapiro is one of several people looking on the scene in dismay. Shapiro was a senate staffer many years ago, working with some of the powerful (and bipartisan) figures he profiled in his book The Last Great Senate.

Shapiro puts his focus squarely on McConnell and his work during the Trump presidency in a new book. The title alone pulls no punches: The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.

The author joins us to add detail to his a story of a senate acting very differently from how it approached its business in decades past.

How Mitch McConnell Made the Senate Even Worse

Republican power grabs and hyper partisanship are just part of his grim reign as Senate Republican Leader.

met Ira Shapiro in 1976, when I joined a Senate committee as staff designee for Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson; Ira was working for Nelson at the time, and we became friends. (We still are.) Ira worked in the Senate over decades, crafting the body’s code of ethics and serving as chief of staff to West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller; he moved on to distinguished service as general counsel to America’s trade representative and to law practice, but he never lost his love for the Senate and its people. His first book, The Last Great Senate, reflected on the way the body functioned in its halcyon days, when we both worked there, with norms dedicated to solving national problems even as its structure and rules made it difficult and at times impossible (see, for example, civil rights). A large number of great statesmen—and an occasional stateswoman—elevated the discourse and when necessary rose above partisanship and pettiness.

The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America
By Ira Shapiro
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 294 pp.

By Shapiro’s second book, his view of the Senate had changed; the title, Broken, made that clear. It wasn’t that the Senate was bereft of quality individuals who might have been considered giants in a different era—it was the overall political dynamic, including political polarization and the decline of the center, the rise of tribal media and social media, and the willingness especially of Republicans, from their first majority in decades during Reagan’s presidency up to Donald Trump’s first year in the White House, to shred norms that had characterized the Senate of the 1960s and ’70s, making a focus on the essential problems of the nation more and more difficult to resolve. Shapiro also put a spotlight on the role of Mitch McConnell.

If Broken at least had a modestly hopeful side—the wish and belief that somehow the Senate could find its way back to some semblance of its former self—his third book, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, has none of that, and the spotlight on McConnell gets brighter and sharper and bleaker. Shapiro defines his thesis this way: “The story of the Senate’s rot is first and foremost the story of Mitch McConnell.” Toward the end, he describes McConnell with some admiration for his considerable skills, but with a damning summation:

McConnell was no “political hack”; he was a superb political strategist and tactician who had never lost an election. He successfully surfed the madness that had engulfed the Republican Party since the rise of Newt Gingrich thirty years earlier to become the most powerful Senate leader in history. More than any other person, he had diminished Obama’s presidency and had helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. With Trump in the White House, McConnell engineered the radical transformation of the Supreme Court and stacked the lower federal courts with right-wing judges; his legacy was secure. Very few people, including presidents, have ever put more of a stamp on our country. What McConnell lacked was a moral compass that would cause him to rise above political calculation.

McConnell’s early years in the Senate did not presage his amoral and ruthless behavior. His role model and mentor, John Sherman Cooper, was a moderate and highly ethical Republican, who would undoubtedly be appalled by the actions of his protégé. The transformation over his Senate career is best described in Alec MacGillis’s superb book The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. But Shapiro takes that portrait and applies it to the McConnell of the past five-plus years. If there is no new reporting here, the cumulative impact of the analysis is damning. In The Betrayal, Shapiro sets out to chronicle key events of the Barack Obama and Trump presidencies, through the beginning of Joe Biden’s term. Much of the book details those key events, starting with the financial collapse that defined the end of George W. Bush’s term and the beginning of Obama’s presidency. House Republicans first rejected the urgent, bipartisan call for an emergency bailout just before the 2008 election and then caved, a plan supported by McConnell. But when Obama became president, McConnell pivoted, with the support of most of his GOP colleagues, into obdurate opposition—even in the face of a dire threat to the U.S. and global economies. As Shapiro puts it, McConnell for the first time was “the opposition leader. He began immediately to transform a Senate struggling unsuccessfully to rise above the polarization of American politics into a bitterly partisan, paralyzed Senate where no effort would be made to overcome the divisions.”

Shapiro guides the reader through the highlights—or lowlights—of the Trump presidency through the prism of the Senate, including the massive tax cuts and attempted repeal of Obamacare, the rush to jam through judges and justices, and, of course, the impeachment. Along the way, a man with no charisma and a visage that reminds many of a turtle was almost Svengali-like in keeping his members in line. The striking element of the tax cuts and the attempted repeal of the health law was the degree to which McConnell threw out the “regular order” to accomplish his ends. Instead of having the bills go through the Senate committees, with hearings, markups, and amendments, he convened a rump group of Republican senators behind closed doors to write the bills, leaving out key members of his own party in addition to shutting out Democrats. But despite sidelining most of them, McConnell did not lose any of his own on the tax cuts, although he did lose the key vote of John McCain on the repeal of Obamacare.

While much of the ground Shapiro treads in the book is familiar, he manages to pull it together in a way that resonates. So much has happened of consequence in the past several years that it is easy to forget each element and how they are tied together. And it is clear that the Senate was pivotal—using and misusing the rules to stymie Obama, including his nominees for executive positions and especially judges; filibustering every initiative big and small; and then protecting and coddling Trump and his corrupt nominees from any significant consequence.

While McConnell’s pledge to make Obama a one-term president failed, the process of disruption and division worked well enough to give the Republicans the Senate majority in the midterms in 2014. That victory meant that McConnell could shatter even more Senate norms when Antonin Scalia died almost a year before the end of Obama’s term. The failure to give even a hearing to Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, was a shocking sign of how the Senate had changed, giving McConnell the ability to fill the post when Trump prevailed in 2016. If Senate Republicans were uneasy about the flagrant breach of norms, they stayed silent—and then voted in lockstep when the long-delayed vacancy was filled by Neil Gorsuch.

Then came the first impeachment, built on the shocking, traitorous behavior of a president who blackmailed the president of Ukraine, in dire need of help in the face of Russian aggression, to get dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The evidence of perfidy was clear, and shown in full relief in the House impeachment hearings, but Senate Republicans made sure the consequences would not fall either on Trump or themselves. The acquittal was foreordained, but the reaction of so-called moderate Republicans in the aftermath was embarrassing. Maine’s Susan Collins famously said, “I believe that the president has learned from this case,” while then Mississippi Senator Lamar Alexander said, “Enduring an impeachment is something nobody would like … I would think you would think twice before doing it again.”

McConnell’s Senate was not just a body of “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” when it came to Trump; it was also a body where truth no longer meant anything and hypocrisy was the norm. During the 2016 campaign, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina promised that if an opening occurred in the Supreme Court in Trump’s last year in office, Republicans would wait until after the next election. In 2018, Graham told attendees of the Atlantic Festival, “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process is started, we will wait until the next election. And I’ve got a pretty good chance of being the Judiciary chairman.” Of course, the opening came, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Graham, along with many other Republicans who had made the same promise, jammed through the confirmation of the radical right-winger Amy Coney Barrett barely a week before the 2020 election. Every Republican save Collins voted to confirm her, one of the most shocking, in-your-face violations of norms in the history of the Senate. We are just beginning to see the dire consequences of this in radical Supreme Court decisions disrupting the fabric of American life.

Shapiro takes us through the debacle of Trump and the pandemic—with no pushback or oversight from Senate Republicans as Trump downplayed the virus, and failed to take any of the steps that could have limited it or prevented massive deaths and incapacitation—and then, of course, the road that led to the January 6 insurrection, the second impeachment of Trump, and his second acquittal. At the impeachment trial in the Senate, McConnell gave a blistering attack on the president, but, predictably, voted for his acquittal. That did not stop Trump from calling McConnell “a dour, sullen, unsmiling political hack.” Trump showed no appreciation for the reality that his presidency, with all its outrages, scandals, traitorous behavior, and widespread corruption, had been saved over and over by McConnell.

Of course, larger trends in society and the political system are larresponsible for the current cancer in the American polity, a cancer that has metastasized from Washington to the states to the public as a whole. The Republican Party was on its way to becoming a radical cult before Donald Trump came along, and before Mitch McConnell became his party’s Senate leader. But individuals can matter in shaping the environment and determining the course of events. And McConnell has mattered—in a way that ensures he will be in the top list of villains when the history of this sorry period is written. The evidence to bolster that judgment will include Ira Shapiro’s The Betrayal.

How Mitch McConnell Wrecked the Senate

Obstructionist under Obama, battering ram under Trump, and a threat to democracy in both guises. An exclusive book excerpt.

The disgraceful performance by the Senate Republicans at the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Jackson shows that they pose a continuing threat to the mutual respect, civil discourse, and good faith that are essential to the working of our democracy. Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz are obviously unrepentant for the near-death experience that they put our democracy through by failing to check Donald Trump’s abuses of power.

Make no mistake: the Senate’s performance during the Trump presidency is the story of the most catastrophic failure of government in American history. That failure undermined the rule of law and threatened our constitutional rights. It deepened our divisions, pitting red states against blue states, whites against Blacks. It endangered our national security, weakening our alliances and strengthening our adversaries. It caused many thousands of Americans to die needlessly before their time. It led directly to the insurrection at the Capitol.

Most American history is written about the presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan—or great events like the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam. Donald Trump’s aberrational presidency has already been the subject of more than 1,200 books; at least 1,200 more will emerge in the years to come. People here and around the world will ask how America, the greatest power in the world, elevated to the presidency a celebrity reality TV star with no experience in government, whose tumultuous business record, deeply flawed personality, abuse of women, and hatred of minorities were all plainly visible.

But in the American constitutional system, no one person—not even a president—should be able to undermine our institutions and jeopardize our democracy. The framers of the Constitution wanted a strong central government because the weakness of the Articles of Confederation showed the limits of what the states could accomplish on their own. But having fought the American Revolution to free the colonies from Great Britain and its monarch, our founders feared the possibility of an overreaching executive who would seek to become a king or an autocrat. They also feared that a president might be corrupt, pursuing personal gain instead of the national interest, and that he could be susceptible to powerful foreign influences.

Consequently, the founders designed a system of checks and balances, the most distinctive feature of which was the Senate. They made it the strongest upper house in the world, with the power to “advise and consent” on executive and judicial nominations, to ratify treaties, and to hold impeachment trials. James Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1787, called the Senate “the great anchor of the government.… Such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”

The Senate would be assigned many functions, but it had one fundamental responsibility: to be a bulwark against any leader who would abuse the great powers of the presidency in ways that threatened our democracy. Some 230 years later, when just such a president finally reached the White House, the Senate should have been democracy’s strongest line of defense. Instead, a nightmare scenario followed: the Senate, weakened from a long period of accelerating decline, proved utterly incapable of checking Trump’s authoritarian desires. Sometimes the Senate Republican majority aided and abetted Trump; often it simply stood by and allowed him to rampage unchecked. America had no defense against the novel threat presented by the unholy alliance between Trump and the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in a moment of anger, correctly observed that the founders had not contemplated the combination of “a rogue president and a rogue majority leader.”

The magnitude of the Senate’s failure should be clearly understood. The Senate did not fail because of its arcane rules or because of the abuse of the filibuster. It wasn’t because its members lacked the ability to do their jobs. Nor did it fail because the senators missed the danger signs. The overwhelming majority of the Senate knew that Trump was incompetent, corrupt, and dangerous; indeed, many saw him as a witting or unwitting agent of Vladimir Putin.

No, the Senate failed because its Republican members, led by McConnell, abandoned the late Senator John McCain’s guiding principle: “Country first.” When it mattered most, the Republican senators put their personal political interests first, the Republican Party’s interests second, and country’s interests nowhere. As America faced unprecedented, cascading, intersecting crises, the Republican senators chose to stand with Trump, either actively supporting him or silently acquiescing. Some undoubtedly convinced themselves that Trump would wither away or that they would find an exit ramp. But as George Ball, the State Department official who famously dissented from the escalation of the Vietnam War, observed: “He who rides the tiger cannot choose where he dismounts.”

There is a familiar Sicilian proverb, “A fish rots from the head.” The story of the Senate’s rot is first and foremost the story of Mitch McConnell. He was an unyielding obstructionist during the Obama presidency, culminating in his refusal to hold a vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. In contrast, McConnell became a relentless battering ram with Trump in the White House. He rode roughshod over one Senate custom, norm, and tradition after another. After Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency, America urgently needed a strong Senate, with a leader in the mold of Democrat Mike Mansfield or Republican Howard Baker, politicians who are rightly remembered as great statesmen and patriots. Instead, America got McConnell, a superb political strategist and tactician who was extraordinarily effective in achieving his partisan objectives, at great cost to the Senate and the country that depended on it.

Of course, even McConnell, the most powerful Senate leader in history, could not have done what he did without his troops. Throughout the Trump presidency, McConnell had only a very narrow majority with which to work. At any moment, three or four Republicans could have stopped him in his tracks. This happened exactly once, in July 2017, when John McCain, dying of brain cancer, memorably joined Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in defeating McConnell’s brazen attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act without hearings, committee action, or floor debate.

Just as McConnell enabled Trump, the other Senate Republicans enabled McConnell. Except for Mitt Romney, who cast the only Republican vote to remove Trump from office in the first impeachment trial, all the Republican senators were complicit. The shameless Lindsey Graham, who had been John McCain’s best friend and Donald Trump’s most scathing critic, spun 180 degrees to become Trump’s favorite golf partner and McConnell’s wing man. Less verbose and simply shameful, Lamar Alexander and Rob Portman, two once-superb public servants, allowed themselves to become virtually invisible at every moment when their voices and their stature would have been useful to call attention to Trump’s abuses of the presidential office.

In the crisis year of 2020, one of the darkest in American history, McConnell and his Republican caucus exonerated Trump after his first impeachment despite uncontroverted evidence that he withheld military assistance from Ukraine to benefit his presidential campaign by damaging Joe Biden, his strongest potential opponent. They averted their eyes as Trump lied about Covid-19, hawked fake cures for the virus, attacked blue state governors, and mocked masks and social distancing—a deluge of misinformation that caused thousands of needless deaths. They opted for silence when Trump invited his supporters to indoor rallies at the peak of the pandemic. They allowed Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen to poison the thinking of 70 percent of his voters—roughly 50 million Americans. They roused themselves to action only long enough to ram through the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court eight days before Election Day. A dozen of them refused to certify the Electoral College results, providing an opportunity for the January 6 assault on the Capitol. The Senate’s Republican members did not just fail; they betrayed their oaths of office, sacrificing American lives and American democracy.

America has paid a terrible price for the experiment with Trump, a narcissistic outsider and disrupter, with authoritarian impulses and contempt for our democratic institutions. But it is McConnell, the political stalwart and faux institutionalist, who poisoned and undermined our political system from within, transforming the Senate into a hyper-partisan battle zone, draining it of the trust and pride that made it work in its great days, while using it for his own purposes. Years before Donald Trump became president, we were living in Mitch McConnell’s America; even with Joe Biden in the White House, to a greater extent than might have been anticipated, we still are.

Midterm elections pose an enormous challenge for the party that holds the White House, but the Democrats have a favorable map for the 2022 Senate elections. A Senate with 53 or 55 Democrats, instead of the current 50, would bring about a sea change in American politics. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, we can be sure of one thing. America will not have a decent politics or a functioning government unless the power of Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans is sharply reduced. They must be held accountable for their past failures and prevented from inflicting any more harm.

This essay is adapted from The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, to be released May 17. Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration trade official, is the author of The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America and The Last Great Senate.