WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a doctor’s note Thursday saying he is “clear” to return to work after he appeared to freeze up for the second time in two months.
But that isn’t satisfying Republicans who are raising concerns that McConnell, R-Ky., the longest-serving leader in Senate history, isn’t being fully transparent about his health issues.
“If he wants to stay as leader, he needs to be transparent and open about his current condition,” said a House Republican, who requested anonymity to discuss McConnell’s health.
A second House Republican, who is close to leadership, said McConnell, 81, has a greater obligation to be forthcoming about any medical issue because of his leadership post, which allows him to participate in classified “Gang of Eight” briefings about some of the most sensitive national security issues.
McConnell should be more transparent “by virtue of that position, and I’m not sure that’s inappropriate,” the second GOP lawmaker said. “I mean, the role that leaders are asked to play, it’s a very serious calling and position, and it has an impact on all the membership.
“He’s obviously, you know, a proud man. He’s been a strong leader. He relishes the position,” the second lawmaker said. “And people in that position aren’t apt to give it up — until they wheel them out.”
Tuesday, just a day before McConnell’s latest freeze, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., disclosed to the public that he had not been feeling well and had been “diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma," which he described as "a very treatable blood cancer.” He will undergo treatment for the next several months, he said, which will take him away from Washington.
The explanation for McConnell’s staring spells has not been as straightforward, with his aides chalking it up to things like lightheadedness and dehydration; on Thursday his office acknowledged a connection between the incidents and the concussion he suffered after a fall this year. And his aides and close allies have been circling the wagons as they try to navigate what might be the most politically vulnerable moment of his nearly 40-year Senate career.
McConnell's office and allies are declining to talk in a detailed way about the two episodes, share any medical diagnosis from his doctors or engage about whether he will be able to lead Senate Republicans through the 2024 election, as he has pledged to do.
After having said McConnell would consult a physician Wednesday, his team did not answer whether he had, in fact, seen his doctor. And it did not say when or where McConnell’s next public appearances would be. Asked by NBC News whether McConnell recently saw his team of neurologists cited in his medical statement Thursday, his office did not respond.
Former aides still close to McConnell declined to comment for this article, even anonymously.
Potential successors to McConnell continue to voice support for him.
After Wednesday’s freeze, Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., and several other members of McConnell’s leadership team spoke by phone with him and issued statements with the same sunny message: The leader sounded just “fine,” and they look forward to seeing him next week when the Senate returns from its summer recess.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., said in a tweet Thursday evening that she'd spoken to McConnell earlier in the day and "to discuss the resumption of Senate business next week. He is fully prepared to continue leading our caucus when the Senate resumes session on Tuesday."
Amid the calls for more transparency, McConnell’s office on Thursday afternoon released a 51-word statement from Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician for the U.S. Capitol, who said he informed McConnell he is "medically clear” to continue to work.
Monahan said he had “consulted” with McConnell and “conferred” with McConnell’s neurology team and determined that McConnell is “medically cleared to continue with his schedule as planned.”
“Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration,” Monahan said.
But the statement seemed to raise more questions than answers. It did not say whether Monahan had personally evaluated McConnell. Monahan also did not explain how he reached the conclusion that McConnell had been cleared and was able to work.
A vocal minority in the GOP is calling on McConnell to step aside. Right-wing Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., no fan of the McConnell's, immediately demanded he resign after Wednesday’s incident, saying he was “not fit for office.” On Thursday, a second Republican said it was time for McConnell to go.
“Yes, I think his family and staff should agree it’s time,” Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., told NBC News. “I think too often, these folks are more concerned about their future and not our country.”
Editors of the usually friendly National Review magazine, which called McConnell “a legend of the U.S. Senate” and "one of the most effective leaders," also said that they were concerned by his freezing episodes and that he needed to resign.
“[T]he time has come for the Kentucky senator, after his long, impressive run, to make the decision to step aside from leadership,” National Review editors wrote. “McConnell has now frozen up during two recent press availabilities. His staff has said he was just suffering from bouts of lightheadedness, and a public note from his doctor suggested the same. To the layman, the incidents looked more concerning than that.
“Regardless, this obviously is not normal and affects his ability to function as the leading representative of his caucus.”