Throughout his career, Mitch McConnell has relished insults like “Grim Reaper,” “Darth Vader” and “Cocaine Mitch,” neutralizing the nicknames by embracing them.
But after he blocked two bills that sought to prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections last week and the moniker “Moscow Mitch” started floating around the internet, McConnell took to the Senate floor to denounce the insult in a lengthy speech.
“No matter how much they lie, no matter how much they bully, I will not be intimidated. For decades I’ve used my Senate seat to stand up to Russia and protect the United States of America,” McConnell said.
McConnell blocked the bills shortly after former special counsel Robert Mueller appeared before two congressional committees and recapped his findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
In his speech decrying the insults on Monday, McConnell justified the move by saying that Democrats supporting the bill “asked for unanimous consent to pass a bill that everyone knows isn’t unanimous and never will be unanimous.”
The “Moscow Mitch” tag began circulating after MSNBC host Joe Scarborough uttered it during his Morning Joe show Friday morning.
Also on Friday, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote a column titled “Mitch McConnell is a Russian Asset,” accusing Kentucky’s senior senator of “aiding and abetting Putin’s dismantling of Americans’ self-governance.”
McConnell accused them of “blindly taking the bait.”
“American pundits calling an American official treasonous because of a policy disagreement. If anything is an asset to the Russians, it is disgusting behavior like that,” McConnell said.
McConnell normally tries to make fun of invective lobbed at him. When former West Virginia U.S. Senate candidate Don Blankenship — a rival of McConnell’s preferred candidate — dubbed the Senate leader as “Cocaine Mitch” in an advertisement, McConnell’s campaign cashed in by printing T-shirts with the name.
McConnell also collects negative political cartoons that feature him, with a total nearing 600, according to a Politico article from earlier this year.
But the “Moscow Mitch” epithet crossed the line for McConnell, says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
“You can debate what he stands for and how he goes about his business, but if you are essentially being called a tool of the Russians — not an agent, but an asset — then that has to sting,” Cross said.
“I think the Senator does a lot of cold calculation about what he does, but I think in this case there was a lot of personal emotion involved in his decision.”
But McConnell’s pushback is also emblematic of his relationship with President Donald Trump, who is popular in Kentucky.
Cross predicted that if McConnell takes up an election security bill, he’ll do it with little fanfare, to avoid angering the president.
“I think that he understands President Trump is overly sensitive to doing anything about the Russian meddling because it implies less legitimacy of Trump’s election. And the most important relationship McConnell has right now is with Trump,” Cross said.
Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report warning that the threat of election interference persists and urging Congress to address the situation.
McConnell is seeking his seventh term in the U.S. Senate during next year’s election.