WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has never had much to say about Donald Trump. But lately, he has fallen completely silent.
As he's made the rounds in his home state of Kentucky this month, McConnell has either ducked reporters' questions or explicitly refused to address the topic he acknowledged was on everyone's mind: his party's presidential nominee.
At a local Chamber of Commerce event in Danville, McConnell twice instructed the crowd not to ask him about the presidential race "even though that's what I know you all wanted me to talk about."
At an event in Pikeville, McConnell refused to answer a reporter's question about Trump not paying any taxes.
And on Tuesday, McConnell urged high school students in Brandenburg, Kentucky, to "put the personalities out of your mind" and instead decide whether they want "the status quo versus change" as they prepare to vote for the first time.
But McConnell never mentioned Trump, and he declined to discuss the GOP nominee with a reporter after the event. Asked if he agreed with Trump that the election is "rigged," McConnell laughed and walked away.
McConnell's silence is especially notable in light of Trump's recent complaints about the election system and hints he might not ultimately accept the results. Despite a lifetime in public service, McConnell has offered no reaction, passing up the opportunity to defend the nation's democratic institutions.
Allies argue that for the 74-year-old McConnell, there is little upside in saying anything more about Trump at this point. Any stance he might adopt could cause complications for vulnerable GOP senators and candidates, who could face questions about whether they agree with whatever McConnell had to say.
Democrats and newspaper editorials have criticized McConnell's silence. But for McConnell those GOP incumbents are by far his top priority, as he faces the prospect of losing his slim 54-46 Republican majority in the Senate only two years after finally ascending to his dream job as majority leader.
If McConnell talked a lot about Trump "he would make life very difficult for everybody who's trying to run their own race," said Josh Holmes, McConnell's former chief of staff.
Another former top McConnell aide, Steven Law, who now runs a super-PAC dedicated to electing Senate Republicans, said, "I think Sen. McConnell's neutrality gives his caucus maximum flexibility to adopt whatever position on Trump best reflects their own states and their own political situations."
McConnell endorsed Trump immediately after the billionaire clinched the GOP nomination in May, indulging none of the wavering or public soul-searching of his GOP House counterpart, Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan withheld his endorsement for a month before finally granting it, an approach that some Republicans groused accomplished little beyond spawning headlines about GOP infighting.
Over the subsequent months McConnell offered occasional public criticisms of Trump, suggesting at various points that the presidential nominee should stick to the issues and stay on-script, and condemning some of his remarks.
In June, McConnell denounced Trump's attacks on an American-born judge of Mexican heritage. The next month, he defended a young Muslim-American man who was killed fighting for the country in Iraq, after Trump criticized the soldier's parents over their appearance at the Democratic National Convention.
After the release of an "Access Hollywood" tape on Oct. 7 with audio of Trump boasting he could get away with doing anything to women because he's a celebrity, McConnell issued a stinging denunciation calling Trump's comments "repugnant and unacceptable in any circumstance" and calling for Trump to "apologize directly to women and girls everywhere."
No such apology was forthcoming, and since then McConnell has had nothing more to say about Trump.
A few GOP Senate candidates withdrew their endorsements of Trump over the tape, while others stuck with him and still others wavered back and forth. Ryan announced after the tape became public that he would no longer defend Trump or campaign for him, which angered some conservatives in his House GOP conference and led to talk that he might face a challenge to his speakership.
But McConnell still apparently backs Trump, he just doesn't want to ever talk about him. Asked Monday whether McConnell still supported Trump and intended to vote for him, spokesman Don Stewart said only, "If he puts out a new statement or a new position, I promise you'll get it."
Associated Press writer Adam Beam contributed from Brandenburg, Kentucky.