Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016, reaffirmed on Tuesday that he would happily ram through confirmation of one of President Donald Trump’s nominees if a vacancy occurred in the final months of Trump’s term.
Now, his office is defending that statement, claiming it was not a reversal of McConnell’s previous comments on the matter.
McConnell claimed in 2016 that Garland’s nomination by President Barack Obama, following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, should not be brought to a vote because “the American people should have a say in the Court’s direction.” In February of that year, he released a statement vowing to keep the seat open so that the next president would be able to fill it.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” he said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) February 16, 2016
In a halfhearted attempt to justify this nakedly partisan gambit, McConnell misleadingly cited a decades-old demand from then-Senate Judiciary Chair Joe Biden (D-DE) that any hypothetical nominees in the final year of President George H.W. Bush’s presidency must be mainstream moderates. Despite Obama’s nomination of a moderate who had previously received strong bipartisan praise, McConnell did not even allow Garland a committee hearing. The seat remained open for nearly a year until Trump filled it with conservative Neil Gorsuch.
“Having gone through it, McConnell and the overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus’ refrain was: let the people have a voice,” recalled Jesse Lee, vice president of communications at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. During the fight over Garland’s nomination, Lee served as the White House director of rapid response and special assistant to President Obama. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
“Not ‘let them have a voice because technically we control the Senate and the opposition controls the presidency.’ It was: ‘It’s the final year of the presidency, the American people should have a voice, so let them have a say.’ It was simple as that,” Lee continued.
McConnell has often since bragged about the maneuver — one he has called one of his “proudest moments.” On Tuesday, McConnell was asked whether he would give the American people the same deference should a Supreme Court vacancy occur next year, in the final year of Trump’s term as president. “Oh, we’d fill it,” he smilingly replied.
David Popp, McConnell’s communications director, tweeted on Wednesday that there was a key reason why Obama should not have gotten to fill the seat and Trump should get to fill one: party.
“The decision not to consider Garland’s nomination was because the Senate was held by a different party than the president leading into an election,” Popp said. “His answer Tuesday is consistent with that claim.”
McConnell has conveyed this reasoning several times — the decision not to consider Garland's nomination was because the Senate was held by a different party than the president leading into an election. His answer Tuesday is consistent with that claim. https://t.co/9JydIEyYdZ
— David Popp (@davidpopp) May 29, 2019
Lee says this argument holds no water. “The fact that you can find a few of his thousands of quotes on this that referenced the opposition party holding the Senate has almost no merit. That was not his calling card, that was not his stance.”
“I think it was a joke then because obviously President Obama was elected to a second term pretty overwhelmingly — he won the popular vote unlike some presidents I know — and he had a very high approval rating. You‘ve got President Trump, whose approval rating is dismal, who people do not trust on any issue across the board, and is facing some pretty serious questions about his own legitimacy in terms of Mueller report,” Lee added. “It’s not just that McConnell’s being inconsistent. Circumstances are much worse here, in terms of what he did to Merrick Garland.”
Popp and McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for clarification as to why the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justices only when the president’s party is in the minority in the Senate.