Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that Donald Trump needs to pick an experienced running mate because “he doesn't know a lot about the issues” and strongly urged him to change course on his rhetoric.
In an extraordinarily frank interview with Bloomberg Politics' Masters in Politics podcast, McConnell, who is on a book tour touting his autobiography The Long Game, also expressed broader concerns about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“He needs someone highly experienced and very knowledgeable because it's pretty obvious he doesn't know a lot about the issues,” McConnell said. “You see that in the debates in which he's participated. It's why I have argued to him publicly and privately that he ought to use a script more often—there is nothing wrong with having prepared texts.”
The Kentucky Republican's frustration with Trump has been clear, especially this week after Trump's tarring of Judge Gonzalo Curiel as biased against him because the Indiana-born former prosecutor is “Mexican.” Still, McConnell said he remains “comfortable” backing Trump.
“For all of his obvious shortcomings, Donald Trump is certainly a different direction, and I think if he is in the White House he'll have to respond to the right-of-center world which elected him, and the things that we believe in. So I'm comfortable supporting him,” McConnell said.
But his attacks on ethnic groups and fellow Republicans need to end, the lawmaker said.
“I object to a whole series of things that he's said—vehemently object to them. I think all of that needs to stop. Both the shots at people he defeated in the primary and these attacks on various ethnic groups in the country.”
McConnell, perhaps the most careful and strategic politician in Washington, rarely goes off script himself, and has been sending Trump the same message for weeks in hopes he'll pivot to the general election.
McConnell said staying on script “indicates a level of seriousness that I think is important to convey to American people about the job you are seeking.”
“I think he'd have a much better chance of winning if he would quit making so many unfortunate public utterances and stick to the script,” he said.
McConnell said he delivered that message in person when the two were in the green room together at the recent National Rifle Association convention in Louisville.
“I said, ‘Hey Donald, you got a script?’ and he pulled it out of his pocket. He said, ‘You know I hate scripts, they're so boring.’ And I said, ‘Put me down in favor of boring. You've demonstrated that you have a lot of Twitter followers and you're good at turning on a big audience. Now you need to demonstrate you have the seriousness of purpose that is required to be president of the United States, and most candidates on frequent occasions use a script.’ So we'll see whether that's something he's capable of doing.”
Trump, of course, did just that when faced with the firestorm over his judge remarks Tuesday night—and Republican senators clearly would like to see more of the same.
McConnell meanwhile, dismissed the idea of Trump tossing out the party's orthodoxy.
“Our nominee is not going to redefine what being a Republican is,” he said. “I think the platform will remain largely the same. In all of the primaries this year for lesser office than president, the so-called establishment figures have won almost every single race. These are people who believe in the basic core principles of the Republican Party.”
While McConnell pronounced himself “comfortable” with Trump, he didn't sound particularly enthusiastic, but suggested Trump, at least, can claim the mantle of being the candidate of change.
“I think the choice for many Americans is not a happy choice,” he said. “You look at both these candidates, both of them have very high disapproval ratings. I think a lot of Americans are not going be thrilled at the choice.
“But this is the choice, and I think, for me, and I hope for a lot of others, the question to be dealt with is this: Do we want four more years just like the last eight, or do we want to go in a different direction?”
He wouldn't rule out rescinding his support of Trump.
“I'm not going to speculate about what he might say, or what I might do. But I think it's pretty clear and I've been pretty clear publicly about how I think he ought to change direction and I hope that's what we are going to see.”
And McConnell sought to separate his large flock of Republican senators running for re-election from Trump.
“Senate races are big enough to rise or fall on their own,” he said. “We've got a number of senators who will have the resources and the record to paint their own picture,” he said.
McConnell predicted neither presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton nor Trump would have coattails.
“You generally have coattails when people not only want to elect you but they want you to do anything you can do,” he said, pointing to Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory and Barack Obama's in 2008.
“I think this is going to be a ticket-splitting year no matter which candidate gets elected president,” he said.
McConnell pointed to his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, as the kind of voter Republicans need to appeal to.
“She's a first-generation immigrant who came here at age 8 not speaking a word of English—a woman on top of it—an accomplished woman on top of it,” he said. “Those are the kind of women voters that Republicans need to appeal to. Minorities, women.”
He pointed to the changing demographics of the country, with white voters making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the electorate.
“We are not going to be competitive in presidential elections appealing only to white voters and particularly writing off white women. So beyond the unfortunate part of the various things that our nominee has said—it's not smart politically.”
© Copyright 2021 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.