WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell says he was surprised Donald Trump won on election night last year.
That may be true, but no one more brilliantly or shrewdly set the wheels in motion for President Trump's victory than the Senate majority leader from Kentucky.
The McConnell-inspired momentum began within hours of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia last February, when McConnell declared the Senate should not confirm a replacement for the conservative icon until after the 2016 election.
That gave McConnell the ability to offer conservatives of all stripes a passionate reason to support the Republican nominee, whoever it was — including the unorthodox Trump.
A lot of Republicans, including McConnell, did not know if Trump was truly a conservative.
"I didn't know what kind of Republican he was going to be. He was supporting Democrats four or five years ago," McConnell said during an interview with the Washington Examiner at his offices in the U.S. Capitol.
What the majority leader did know was that the looming appointment of a Supreme Court justice would be the single biggest factor bringing Republicans home on Election Day.
Having the authority to name the next justice proved to be a huge political plus for Trump. Putting out a list of potential nominees before the election — it was McConnell's idea — was nothing short of genius.
"To reassure the public, Trump worked with the Federalist Society [to] come up with a list of highly credible conservative justices and put it out during the campaign," McConnell said.
"He has picked, in my view, the single most outstanding circuit judge in the entire country. So he did not blow the opportunity that we left behind for him."
It was a move demonstrating, once again, that while many politicians are playing checkers, McConnell is playing three-dimensional chess.
Donald and Mitch: The Odd Couple
Addison Mitch McConnell's office is filled with two dominant themes: family and history.
Located on the second floor of the Capitol, it reflects the passion of Kentucky's longest-serving senator for those who came before him. Paintings of fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay during his "Great Compromise" Senate speeches of 1850 share wall space with portraits of two more modern-day Kentuckians, Sen. John Sherman Cooper and Alben Barkley.
"Barkley was a Democrat who served in both chambers of Congress and as vice president of the United States under Truman," McConnell said. "Cooper was my hero and mentor."
Photos of McConnell's daughters, and a wedding photo with his wife, Elaine Chao, Trump's transportation secretary, also are a prominent part of what McConnell surrounds himself with in his office, which once was the original Library of Congress.
His relationship with Trump is on solid ground, he says. "Everything that has happened, since he has taken office, has been reassuring to me." Pause. "And to others."
Trump, he insists, is doing the kinds of things McConnell would have expected from a Mitt Romney, a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush presidency: "He has picked an absolutely stunning individual for the Supreme Court, [and] we have already put in place the mechanism to repeal and replace Obamacare, which is an obligation we have to the American people."
McConnell then lays out a list of things that Congress and the president are doing or will soon put in place which, he says, will begin to meet what else Republicans feel obliged to achieve. High among those are comprehensive tax reform and regulatory reform.
"I agree with what Bill Clinton said last year, when he said it's the craziest thing we've ever seen," he said, citing Clinton's description of Obamacare's cost impact on working people. He believes the public wants Obamacare repealed, replaced or fixed with some combination of both.
"So we have an obligation to get that job done."
McConnell points out that, under the health law originally crafted by Democrats, the secretary of health and human services holds great latitude over various provisions and rules. "We had a meeting with [new HHS Secretary] Tom Price Wednesday ... which is going to be used to put us in a better place rather than continuing the nightmare."
He says the president is working with Senate Republicans to do that.
"We also need comprehensive tax reform to make America much more competitive; it is way past time to do that again. It was the kind of thing that President Obama was not interested in doing."
And McConnell says Republican leaders are using the Congressional Review Act to undo what he describes as an onslaught of regulations that overloaded the economy during the last eight years: "The Obama years did not produce the kind of growth we need to sustain the next generation."
McConnell said his overall point is that he "very much" likes what Trump is doing and how he is doing it.
Did Trump stumble, though, on his immigration order, in the way that the press is framing it?
McConnell laughs and says no: "He's got several options. He can repeal it, change it. To me, it is not unusual to have an administration stopped in court."
As proof, he points to instances (that run into double digits) of Obama's executive orders being blocked or overturned, including his post-2014 midterms executive order on immigration.
Regarding what seem like unnecessary controversies, caused mainly by tweets, that have hurt Trump in opinion polls, McConnell is both blunt and sanguine: "I actually agree. I mean, I mention that I like what president is doing (but) I don't always like what the president is saying.
"And I do think that he frequently, when wading into other matters, takes the attention away from the very substantial things we are accomplishing."
Marrying the blue wall with conservatism
McConnell frankly assesses how both chambers of Congress must earn the trust of voters who crossed party lines to vote for Trump.
"It's pretty simple," he said. "Enact regulatory reform, tax reform, and repeal and replace Obamacare.
"That's how we keep all of these new voters who are starting to identify as Republicans."
Trump did what no Republican presidential candidate has done in the last eight presidential elections. He won every traditional battleground state in the Great Lakes region — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin. And he came within 40,000 votes of winning Minnesota.
"A lot of people talked about this being a 'change' election," McConnell said. "Well, it actually wasn't," at least not for the Senate and House. Instead, he describes it as a status-quo election for Congress.
"In other words, the American people expressed confidence in the House and Senate. What they wanted, it seems to me, was someone who would signs bills that we passed.
"What the president deserves a lot of credit for during the campaign is that he breached the blue wall. I did not think that any candidate for president on our side would carry Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin."
"What he managed to do, which is startling given the fact that he is a billionaire living in Manhattan and Palm Beach, was to identify with white, working-class voters who look at today's Democratic Party as one that is only interested in groups — this group, that group — and they're like, 'I'm not in any of those groups.'
"I saw those kinds of voters in red states run up huge margins. I mean, in my state, Hillary Clinton got 32 percent of the vote and, in Shelley Moore Capito's state [West Virginia], she got 27 percent of the vote," he says, smiling broadly.
"Well, those kinds of folks also lived in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and [Trump] connected with people who felt kind of left behind."
To hold on to these voters in the next election, and to have them fully grasp and accept conservativism, McConnell said policies on tax reform, regulatory reform and Obamacare's repeal are necessary, just as they are to turn around the economy.
"If we get the economy going again, then we have a better chance of getting those folks joining us and not feeling left behind."
The fix is complicated
McConnell admits that fixing Obamacare will be complicated.
"Even if Hillary Clinton had won and Chuck Schumer became the majority leader of the Senate, we would still be revisiting Obamacare," he said.
But if Democrats had won the White House and the Senate, he adds, the country would be moving closer to a single-payer system.
Republicans "don't think that is the best way to go."
He and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are working closely with Health and Human Services Secretary Price to reform the system.
"Remember when then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said we had to pass this law so that we could see what was in it?" he asks. "Maybe that was inartfully expressed. My suspicion is, she knew it was a massive punt to HHS.
"We are hoping that this vast authority Price has can be used in a more constructive way to create better insurance markets, and we have an obligation to ... do that," he said. "This was an issue that was widely discussed in 2010, in 2014 and (the) 2016 elections.
"People are expecting us to address it, and that is what we intend to do."
Protesting is the American way
For the past few weeks, protesters described by GOP officials as Democratic agitators have swarmed Republican town hall events across the country, booing, shouting and trying to embarrass lawmakers seeking to gut Obamacare.
McConnell seems unconcerned, noting that someone is protesting something in Washington almost every day.
"The way I look at this, this is a free country, and people got a right to go protest if they want to," he said.
"I also think the protesters are bipartisan. Look at the 3,000 who showed up in Brooklyn last month because they thought [Sen.] Schumer wasn't doing enough," he said. "Apparently they think he is wimping out, that he is not sufficiently committed to obstruction" of GOP initiatives in Congress.
McConnell says legislative obstruction can be respectful, if you are trying to achieve something: "For example, I was reluctant to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 when President Obama was there. So we passed the budget control act, which actually drove down spending two years for the first time since right after the Korean War.
"That is obstruction for a purpose."
But obstructing congressional action simply for the purpose of obstruction, he believes, is futile.