GOP leaders diverge on Trump, putting party in limbo

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FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2019, file photo President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media following a Christmas Eve video teleconference with members of the military at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. Congressional Republicans are at a crossroads with Donald Trump. One branch of the party is keeping close to the former president, hoping to harness the power of his political brand for their campaigns. The other is splitting away and trying to chart a post-Trump future. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

WASHINGTON – One by one, the Republican leaders of Congress have made the trip to Mar-a-Lago to see Donald Trump.

Kevin McCarthy visited after the deadly Jan 6 Capitol insurrection, counting on the former president's help to win back control of the House in 2022. The chair of the Senate Republican campaign committee, Rick Scott, stopped by to enlist Trump in efforts to regain the Senate. Lindsey Graham goes to play golf.

But missing from the appearances has been perhaps the most powerful Republican elected official in the country, Mitch McConnell, a onetime ally who ushered the former president’s legislative and judicial agenda to fruition, but now claims to want nothing to do with Trump.

The very public pilgrimages, and the noticeable refusal to make one, have placed congressional Republicans at a crossroads, with one branch of the party keeping close to Trump, hoping to harness the power of his political brand and loyal voters for their campaigns, and the other splitting away, trying to chart the GOP’s post-Trump future.

With no obvious heir apparent or leader-in-waiting, the standoff between the party’s two highest-ranking figures poses an uneasy test of political wills and loyalties, particularly for the rank-and-file lawmakers in Congress dependent on both men for their political livelihoods. Congress has become more Trump-like in the former president’s absence, as a new generation of Trump-aligned lawmakers emerges, particularly in the Senate, and more centrist Republicans announce their retirements.

“We've got enough problems without fighting within ourselves," said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who was swept into office this year with Trump's support.

“You know, being a football coach, that’s what I would tell our players and coaches,” he said. "You bring your whole team down. So that’s pretty much how I think about this. As a team, we don’t need arguing between teammates. We just need them to be on the same page.”

The stark fallout was on display at the Republican donor retreat when Trump lashed into McConnell as a “stone-cold loser” but then was feted with an honorary award from Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair launching the campaign efforts.