He did not, though, back away from supporting the New York real estate magnate.
Instead, McConnell criticized Trump for statements the Republican presidential candidate has made about Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over a court case involving his defunct real-estate training program, Trump University.
“I worry about these gratuitous shots at a variety of Americans,” McConnell said in a discussion of his book, “The Long Game,” at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington policy group. “Basically, we’re writing off Hispanic Americans.”
Trump has said that Curiel is biased against him because Trump has proposed to build a wall at the Mexican border to curb illegal immigration. Although Curiel’s parents are from Mexico, he was born in Indiana and is known for his tough approach to Mexican drug cartels.
“IT’S TIME FOR HIM TO LOOK LIKE A SERIOUS CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT. THIS COULD BE A WINNABLE RACE.” -Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
“Even if you thought that was appropriate in any way, which I don’t,” McConnell said of Trump’s singling out of Curiel’s Mexican heritage, “it’s stupid to do that.”
McConnell and many prominent Republicans have criticized Trump’s remarks but continue to back him. Trump should apologize and “get on script,” McConnell said.
“It’s time for him to look like a serious candidate for president,” he said. “This could be a winnable race.”
McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in Kentucky in 1984, also unloaded on talk-radio hosts, on President Barack Obama and on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s onetime rival for the Republican presidential nomination.
Cruz, who’s frequently clashed with McConnell and other Senate colleagues, led a faction of conservative Republicans in Congress who shut down the government in late 2013 rather than fund the implementation of Obama’s health care law.
“MY PARTY OWNS THE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN BRAND. IT’S NOT A GOOD BRAND.” –McConnell
McConnell called the unpopular shutdown “dumb.”
“My party owns the government shutdown brand,” he said. “It’s not a good brand.”
McConnell, who became majority leader after the 2014 mid-term election, also blamed conservative talk radio for stoking the constituent anger that fueled the shutdown.
“A lot of base voters have been really misled by a lot of talk show hosts and others about what’s achievable when you don’t have the White House,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussion about the Constitution, but people don’t seem to know anything about it.”
The president, he said, is the only American who has veto power over Congress.
“A LOT OF BASE VOTERS HAVE BEEN REALLY MISLED BY A LOT OF TALK SHOW HOSTS AND OTHERS ABOUT WHAT’S ACHIEVABLE WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE THE WHITE HOUSE.” –McConnell
Obama was never going to sign a repeal of his signature legislative achievement, no matter which party controlled Congress, McConnell said.
“They’ve been fed the notion that a Republican Congress can overcome a Democratic president and completely bring him to his knees when it’s not possible,” McConnell said. “On a number of key issues, we have gone as far as we can go without having somebody sign the measure that you put on his desk.”
At key points when McConnell and Obama couldn’t work out their differences, the president tapped Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate. Obama deserves credit for that, McConnell said.
But he said Obama passed up several chances to govern from the center, citing Ronald Reagan’s work with a Democratic Congress and Bill Clinton’s partnership with a Republican Congress.
“ON A NUMBER OF KEY ISSUES, WE HAVE GONE AS FAR AS WE CAN GO WITHOUT HAVING SOMEBODY SIGN THE MEASURE THAT YOU PUT ON HIS DESK.” –McConnell
“Divided government is actually the best time to do tough stuff,” McConnell said. “He made a conscious decision not to be a centrist. He wanted to move the country to the left, and he has.”
McConnell also explained why he voted for Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 instead of Republican Barry Goldwater.
At the time, McConnell was an intern in the office of Kentucky Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper, whose strong backing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped gain its passage. Goldwater opposed the bill and lost McConnell’s support. Goldwater lost to Johnson in a landslide that year.
“I was a big Goldwater enthusiast,” McConnell said. “But I was so angry with him over his decision to oppose the civil rights bill of ’64. Subsequently, I didn’t feel very good about that vote, because almost everything else about Goldwater I liked.”
“It was a protest vote,” he said.
“I WAS A BIG GOLDWATER ENTHUSIAST. BUT I WAS SO ANGRY WITH HIM OVER HIS DECISION TO OPPOSE THE CIVIL RIGHTS BILL OF ’64.” –McConnell