They’ve never been good friends — and now appear to be political enemies. But the odd partnership between Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell nevertheless gave conservatives their biggest Supreme Court win in a generation.
The justices’ 5-4 decision overturning Roe v. Wade achieved one of the highest goals of the conservative movement: sending the authority to decide abortion law back to the states.
It was made possible chiefly because of actions taken by both Mr. McConnell, 80, the Senate Republican leader who controlled the consideration of judicial nominees while his party was in the majority, and Mr. Trump, 76, who defied steep odds to become the Republican nominee and ultimately the winner of the 2016 presidential election, clearing the way for him to nominate justices from a list of conservative judges compiled while he was a candidate.
“Each gets substantial credit for the role they played,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. “But one could not have done it without the other.”
The two succeeded despite a consistently rocky relationship.
Six years ago, Mr. McConnell tried to block Mr. Trump from becoming president. He actively worked against the businessman and reality TV star’s effort to become the Republican nominee.
At one point in 2016, Mr. McConnell promised fellow Republicans that they would drop Mr. Trump “like a hot rock” if he made it onto the ballot and endangered down-ballot party members running for reelection to the Senate.
Mr. Trump has regularly taken jabs at Mr. McConnell. He has criticized the Kentuckian’s leadership of Senate Republicans and nicknamed him “Broken Old Crow.”
Most recently, Mr. Trump warned on his Truth Social media site that Mr. McConnell’s push for bipartisan gun control legislation “will be the final straw” and “the first step in taking away your guns.”
Despite their mutual distaste for each other, the two forged a fragile partnership during Mr. Trump’s four years in the White House. They worked together to fill more than 200 vacancies on the federal courts and, most important, three open seats on the Supreme Court, with conservative jurists.
“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican running for the Florida Legislature. “For them to get three Supreme Court justices through the Senate required a lot of trust. Trump placed a lot of trust in McConnell because of the arcane rules of the United States Senate, and he felt that McConnell was the best one to navigate those land mines.”
The alliance barely lasted the four years of Mr. Trump’s presidency and fell apart on Jan. 6, 2021, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol and disrupted the joint session of Congress that was certifying the 2020 presidential election results.
Although Mr. McConnell did not vote to convict the president on a House impeachment charge of inciting the riot, he eviscerated Mr. Trump in a Senate floor speech while blaming him for the chaos and violence.
“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” Mr. McConnell said on Feb. 13, 2021.
Mr. McConnell said Mr. Trump ended his political career because of his actions on Jan. 6, and Mr. McConnell seemed happy about it, according to the book “This Will Not Pass,” by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns.
“He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger,” Mr. McConnell reportedly said. “Couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
Yet for the previous four years, Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell took actions that worked in tandem to convert the Supreme Court from a 5-4 majority of Democratic appointees to the 6-3 Republican-appointed court that has delivered a series of landmark rulings, including the reversal of the 1973 abortion decision.
Among the key steps that made the ruling a reality was Mr. McConnell’s announcement, hours after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, that he would not hold a Senate vote to fill the vacancy until after the 2016 election. That deprived the Senate of an opportunity to confirm President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, who is now President Biden’s attorney general.
Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory paved the way for Republicans to later confirm Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who was among the five on the court who voted to overturn Roe last week.
Mr. Gorsuch was on a list of conservative judges whom Mr. Trump, as a candidate, pledged to choose to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, and it helped him win the evangelical vote.
After Mr. Trump appointed Justice Gorsuch, Mr. McConnell moved to end the filibuster on high court nominees, which prevented Democrats from what likely would have been a filibuster of the Gorsuch nomination and the two Trump-nominated justices who followed.
The Trump administration is credited with persuading Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to retire, giving Republicans a chance to preserve a Republican-nominated seat and confirm a second high court justice.
When Senate Democrats tried to thwart the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh with a litany of unproven sexual assault claims and televised hearings featuring an accuser, Mr. McConnell, along with then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, refused to waver on their support of the nominee. They helped ensure Mr. Trump’s continued support and ultimately Justice Kavanaugh’s narrow confirmation.
“If they had wavered at all, the Kavanaugh nomination would have certainly failed,” said Mike Davis, the Senate Republicans’ staff leader for Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “McConnell and Grassley pulled a rabbit out of a hat to get Kavanaugh’s confirmation over the finish line.”
Mr. McConnell also ushered through the nomination of Mr. Trump’s third nominee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed to the court eight days before the November 2020 election after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Mr. Trump took credit for the court’s ruling last week on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe. After all, he nominated three of the five justices in the majority decision.
The Supreme Court also ruled last week to expand an individual’s right to carry a gun. It was a major victory for Second Amendment advocates.
Those high court decisions, Mr. Trump said, “were only made possible because I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.”
Mr. McConnell has said reshaping the judiciary has been “the single most important accomplishment of my career,” but he hardly ever mentions Mr. Trump as part of that success story.
During a speech Monday before the Rotary Club in Florence, Kentucky, Mr. McConnell dodged a complimentary comparison between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who, like Mr. Trump, was a television star before winning the presidency. Mr. Zelenskyy is now months into battling a Russian invasion of his country.
“People were wondering what this guy’s going to be like,” Mr. McConnell said about Mr. Zelenskyy’s unusual rise to power. “I could have told them, ‘We had an actor in the White House, and it worked out very well — when Ronald Reagan was president.’ You never can tell about these showbiz people.”