Senator Mitch McConnell flatly blamed President Trump on Tuesday for the violent rampage at the Capitol on Jan. 6, saying that the mob that stormed the building had been “fed lies” and “provoked by the president” to carry out its assault.
Mr. McConnell’s remarks, on the eve of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s inauguration, were the clearest signal yet from the most powerful Republican left in Washington that after four years of excusing and enabling Mr. Trump, he has come to regard the departing president as a force who could drag down the party if he is not firmly excised by its leaders.
Mr. McConnell, who is said to privately believe that Mr. Trump committed impeachable offenses, gave no indication of whether he would vote to convict Mr. Trump at his impeachment trial on a single charge of “incitement of insurrection.” But it was a notable condemnation from the senator who will play a leading role in determining whether enough Republicans join Democrats to find the president guilty, allowing them to disqualify him from holding office in the future.
“The mob was fed lies,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”
In an apparent dig at Mr. Trump, who continues to insist that he won the election, Mr. McConnell, also called Mr. Biden “the people’s clear choice for their 46th president” and promised to “move forward” with the new administration — though only if it extended an arm to Republicans.
The move was undoubtedly a calculated risk for the leader, whose power has derived from party unity and who has benefited unmistakably from Mr. Trump’s tenure, as the president and Senate Republicans locked arms to cut taxes and confirm hundreds of conservative judges. Public opinion polling suggests that a majority of Republican voters believe Mr. Trump’s claims of widespread fraud. And the president, who remains by far the most popular figure in his party, has threatened to unleash revenge against any elected officials who cross him in the form of costly primary challenges that could fester in the years ahead. Many of them are Mr. McConnell’s closest allies.
The backlash was immediate on Tuesday.
“The only lies that were fed are that Joe Biden won the election,” Amy Kremer, the leader of the pro-Trump group Women for America First and a leader in the “Stop the Steal” campaign, wrote on Twitter, commenting on video of Mr. McConnell’s speech. She described it with a barnyard epithet. “If you think Pres Trump’s base is going anywhere,” she added, “u are sadly mistaken.”
On Fox News, Sean Hannity dedicated his opening monologue to bashing Mr. McConnell, demanding new Senate Republican leadership. He called Mr. McConnell the “king of establishment Republicans” and accused him of “cowering in fear, wilting under the pressure from the media mob, liberal Democrats and big tech companies” rather than fighting for Mr. Trump’s agenda.
Some of Mr. McConnell’s colleagues pushed back more gently, but their words underscored the significant break within the remarkably cohesive Republican ranks.
“I’m looking for our leadership to recognize that the best thing for the Republican Party and the country are the same,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “Moving on.”
But Mr. McConnell’s allies say he has grown increasingly concerned that if party leaders do not intervene, the president’s campaign to discredit his own defeat could do lasting damage both to democracy and to Republicans’ political fortunes, driving them into a permanent minority in Washington. They pointed out that Mr. Trump had led the party as it lost the White House, the House and the Senate in just a short stretch.
Already, corporate America, long a mainstay of Republican power, has moved to cut ties with many senior Republicans. Suburban voters who fled the party in droves during Mr. Trump’s tenure are likewise looking on in disgust. And if ardent Trump supporters come to believe en masse that elections are rigged, it could depress turnout ahead of the 2022 midterms when Republicans hope to claw back the House and the Senate.
“If we spend the midterms and the next presidential election litigating whether Donald Trump won or lost, we are going to lose,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist close to Mr. McConnell.
The majority leader, he added, is “thinking about the threshold question for the American people: Can we trust these Republicans with positions of high responsibility in our government?”
Mr. Jennings acknowledged it was no easy task, but argued the party needed to rebuild around conservative policy principles rather than polarizing personalities.
“Hopefully more Republicans see it his way than the dead-enders who continue to believe the election was illegitimate,” he said.
Yet unlike in the Senate, a majority of House Republicans still strongly support Mr. Trump and appear determined to carry forward his combative brand of politics, including his false claims of election fraud.
Mr. McConnell’s counterpart in the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, has wagged his finger at Mr. Trump, saying the president should have spoken out to stop the rampage, but he has not made a full break.
In a speech before last week’s impeachment vote, Mr. McCarthy said that “the president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” But he also opposed impeachment. And just a week earlier, even after the mob had invaded the Capitol, he was among a majority of Republicans who voted twice to toss out Electoral College votes for Mr. Biden that Mr. Trump and his allies falsely claimed were invalid.
Mr. McConnell’s tactics and the extent to which his colleagues in the Senate share his views will become much clearer in the coming days as the Senate begins its second impeachment trial of Mr. Trump in a little more than a year.
Though Mr. Trump will no longer be in office, the proceeding will present Republicans with a singular opportunity to disqualify him from ever holding office again if 17 of them join all 50 Democrats to find Mr. Trump guilty. That possibility will ensure a complex political and constitutional calculus and could well lead rank-and-file Republicans to conclude that the party is better off not provoking Mr. Trump’s further outrage.
Mr. McConnell has been careful to leave his options open before the trial and does not plan to commit himself to conviction or acquittal before hearing the case.
But he has so far set a far different tone than he did just a year ago, when he declared that “I’m not an impartial juror” and proceeded to set trial rules at the White House’s behest that would strangle Democrats’ case and favor Mr. Trump’s ultimate acquittal. Now he has told allies he is finished with Mr. Trump and is doing nothing to persuade senators to back him, instead calling the impeachment vote a matter of conscience.
Already a half-dozen Republican senators have indicated they believe Mr. Trump’s offense was grave, but others appeared to be closely watching Mr. McConnell for cues.
“I think that’s a good way to put it,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a McConnell ally, echoing language Mr. McConnell has used to describe the vote. “I’m going to listen to what’s presented,” he added.
The timing of the trial itself remained in limbo on Tuesday as leaders worked behind the scenes to craft a set of rules to govern the proceeding and the broader balance of power in the Senate, which after Wednesday will be split 50 to 50. Impeachment trials are typically all-consuming affairs, grinding all other Senate work to a halt, and Democrats were adamant that this time the two sides find a way to simultaneously judge Mr. Trump and confirm key members of Mr. Biden’s cabinet.
“We’re doing the inauguration now,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday, swatting away questions about when she would transmit the House’s charge, prompting the start of the trial.
Democrats will hold control because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have the power to break Senate ties, but Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, will need at least some cooperation from Mr. McConnell to run the chamber and get things done.
Even as he sought to cut off Mr. Trump, Mr. McConnell signaled to Democrats that he intended to be every bit the partisan combatant who has infuriated them for years, insisting in private negotiations that they commit to leaving in place the filibuster if they want his cooperation on any power-sharing deal.
“Certainly November’s election did not hand any side a mandate for sweeping ideological change,” Mr. McConnell said in his floor speech. “Our marching orders from the American people are clear: We’re to have a robust discussion and seek common ground. We are to pursue bipartisan agreement everywhere we can, and check and balance one another respectfully where we must.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.