Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

TIME magazine’s cover story this week—about the longest-ever government shutdown in history—is titled The Art of the Duel. The illustration depicts Nancy Pelosi catapulting crumpled subpoena papers toward the president, who returns fire by launching Twitter-icon birds at her with a slingshot, sitting atop a wall just like the one he’s demanding. The piece, by veteran journalist Molly Ball, sets up a dichotomy through which we are meant to understand the shutdown: “At the center of the drama are the two towering figures whose clash will define the next biennium: Trump and Pelosi, the yang and yin of a divided America, two powerful leaders with their credibility on the line, both convinced they hold the winning hand.”

This isn’t just TIME’s take. Scores of American media outlets have used a specific frame to help America make sense of this moment: Trump vs. the Democrats. The Associated Press headlined their December 31 analysis, “Trump-Pelosi showdown over shutdown first battle of new era.” The Washington Post ran a story titled, “The shutdown is a prelude to a year of conflict between Trump and Democrats.” Coverage from Fox, to USA Today, to Forbes has run along similar lines.

It is, after all, a useful frame, partially because it’s compatible with the broader story of House Democrats’ newfound ability to hold the president accountable, and partially because Trump preemptively took credit for closing the government. More than anything, it’s uncomplicated and dramatic.

But that narrative lets a critical player responsible for the shutdown fade into the background—exactly where he wants to be. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the constitutional authority to call for a vote to reopen the government but refuses to do so. He should be at the center of the shutdown coverage.

The federal government shutdown began on December 22 after President Trump refused to sign any government funding package without $5 billion earmarked for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (During his campaign, Trump promised Mexico would pay for the wall.) Days earlier, the president said he would support a short-term spending bill without wall funding to keep the government open into the new year. The Senate had passed such a measure and the House appeared ready to follow suit. But then conservative commentators hammered the president on his acquiescence, and Trump reinstated his demand for a border wall. The government has remained closed since.

Twice now after high-level shutdown negotiations during the last three weeks, Republican House leaders have joined the president or vice president for a press conference. McConnell, meanwhile, has both times avoided reporter’s microphones and quietly returned to Capitol Hill.

Just five years ago, when Obama was president, the Kentucky senator referred to himself as “the guy that gets us out of shut-downs.” But he notably hasn’t utilized his self-proclaimed political brokering skills this time. McConnell’s go-to line on the government closure has been that “the Senate will not take up any proposal that does not have a real chance of passing this chamber and getting a presidential signature. Let’s not waste the time.” That stance is deceptive, because no one has more control over which proposals can pass the Senate than the majority leader himself. Still, if Trump were to make good on his veto threat, it wouldn’t necessarily prevent a government funding bill from passing. The Republicans could muster up enough support from their own caucus to override it.

But McConnell is also being politically shrewd. By not calling for a vote to reopen the government, he is shielding himself and other Republicans from having to go on the record as either breaking with the president (which would be unpopular the Make-America-Great-Again portion of the Republican base) or voting to keep the government closed (which would be unpopular with essentially everyone else). The strategy has also been remarkably effective at insulating Republican senators from any blame for the shutdown. A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 47% of voters blame Trump for the shutdown, 33% blame Democrats, and just 5% blame Republicans.

McConnell’s point that a funding bill without wall money “would not have a real chance of passing this chamber” banks on people forgetting—and the media not emphasizing—an embarrassing contradiction. Just days before the government ultimately shutdown, the Senate passed a short-term funding bill without any money for a southern border wall, which would have kept the government open until February 8. Why not pass another stop-gap bill to open the government, at least temporarily, while substantive arguments around border security are hashed out? That option is still available to McConnell if he were interested; the votes are clearly there. A short-term budget would easily pass the Democrat-controlled House, and McConnell would just need to rustle up ten Senate Republican votes to meet the requisite 60-vote threshold. That kind of bipartisanship is rare in recent history, but Republicans—particularly those who will face tough re-election campaigns in 2020—are already tip-toeing away from the president’s promise of lengthy shutdown.

Beyond electoral considerations, it’s clear Republicans aren’t even particularly interested in erecting a border wall. If they had really wanted to use tax-payer funds to build one, they could have done so during the two years they controlled both chambers.

Moreover, one of McConnell’s greatest strengths is the exact sort of political maneuvering that passing a short-term budget would require. During the Obama administration, he struck a back-channel deal with Vice President Joe Biden to raise the debt limit and fund the government. Even McConnell’s GOP colleagues recognize that he’s been conspicuously absent. “Mitch understands what makes the mules plow around here,” Louisiana Senator John Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times. “Certainly, I would like to see him involved more.” (Kennedy added that he saw McConnell’s point of view that he can’t move forward until Trump and Pelosi reach an agreement.)

In interviews with the media, McConnell has insisted that he won’t bring a bill to Trump that the president might veto. But of course, a presidential veto doesn’t stop a bill in its tracks, it just sends it back to Congress. The spending bill would then have to pass by a two-thirds margin in both chambers, requiring 55 Republicans in the House and 20 in the Senate to cross the aisle and vote with Democrats.

McConnell’s wily position is also an abdication of his constitutional duty. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution charges Congress with using tax revenue to “provide for the general welfare.” In other words, the legislative branch decides how the government spends its money. The president has enumerated powers in the constitution but determining the federal budget is not one of them. As much as McConnell wants to act like the shutdown rests on Trump’s shoulders, the reality is that it rests on his.

Here’s the thing: government shutdowns have real human consequences. For low-wage government workers who earn around $30,000 per year, a pay stub of $0.00, which is what they got last Thursday, is devastating. Many of those workers will now struggle to pay for childcare, utilities, and groceries.

Food banks in the D.C. area are now expanding their offerings to serve this population, according to the Washington Post, but federal rental assistance contracts have expired, which means that 1.2 million low-income families could face eviction if the shutdown drags on. (Trump has said it could last months, maybe even years.) The Federal Drug Administration has halted most food inspections, and at national parks, trash is overflowing while pit toilets are filling up. McConnell’s indifference to the shutdown’s toll is an obvious sign that he prioritizes protecting Congressional Republicans over the American public.

But since Congress is the ultimate arbiter of whether the government is funded, there was never a way for Trump to maintain a shutdown without McConnell’s complicity. If the Senate leader had used his negotiation skills, supported purple-state Republicans, and worked proactively with Senate Democrats, the government could be open right now.

“The media” is, of course, an imprecise phrase. The New Yorker is not the same as Fox News, MSNBC is not the same as Breitbart. But the extent to which major media organizations have framed the government’s closure as a contest between Trump and Pelosi has completely obfuscated McConnell’s role as an agent of the shutdown.

This was painfully apparent last Wednesday, when Trump held negotiations with Congressional Democrats at the White House. McConnell was in the meeting, but even an avid news consumer might have missed that. Coverage from CNN, the Washington Post, USA Today, Breitbart, and other outlets barely acknowledged his presence.

By framing the shutdown as a duel between Trump and the Democrats, too many news outlets have botched their role in holding the powerful to account. They have missed the essential point: this isn’t just Trump’s or the Democrats’ shutdown to end. It’s Mitch McConnell’s, too.

Grace Gedye

Grace Gedye is reporter for CalMatters. She was an editor at Washington Monthly from 2018 to 2021.