WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell briefly left his own press conference Wednesday after stopping his remarks midsentence and staring off into space for several seconds.
McConnell approached the podium for his weekly press conference and began speaking about the annual defense bill on the floor, which he said was proceeding with “good bipartisan cooperation.” But he then appeared to lose his train of thought, trailing off with a drawn-out “uh.”
The Kentucky senator then appeared to freeze up and stared vacantly for around 20 seconds before his colleagues in Republican leadership, who were standing behind him and could not see his face, grabbed his elbows and asked if he wanted to go back to his office.
He did not answer, but slowly walked back to his office with an aide and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a former orthopedic surgeon who is the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. After sitting down in his office for several minutes, McConnell later returned to the press conference and answered questions from the press.
McConnell, 81, was out of the Senate for almost six weeks earlier this year after falling and hitting his head after a dinner event at a hotel. He was hospitalized for several days, and his office later said he suffered a concussion and fractured a rib. His speech has sounded more halting in recent weeks, prompting questions among some of his colleagues about his health.
When he returned to answer questions, McConnell said he was “fine.” Asked if he is still able to do his job, he said, “Yeah.”
McConnell’s office declined to say whether he was seen by a doctor after the episode.
After the press conference, Barrasso told reporters he “wanted to make sure everything was fine” and walked McConnell down the hall to his office.
Barrasso said he has been concerned since McConnell was injured earlier this year, “and I continue to be concerned.”
But asked about his particular concerns, Barrasso said: “I said I was concerned when he fell and hit his head a number of months ago and was hospitalized. And I think he’s made a remarkable recovery, he’s doing a great job leading our conference and was able to answer every question the press asked him today.”
Walking out of his office Wednesday evening, McConnell again told reporters he was fine. He said President Joe Biden had called him.
“The president called to check up on me, and I told him I got sandbagged,” McConnell joked, referencing a quote from Biden in June after he tripped over a sandbag and fell while onstage at the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation.
First elected to the Senate in 1984, McConnell became the longest-serving Senate party leader in history in January. He was easily reelected to his leadership post that same month, despite a challenge from Florida Sen. Rick Scott.
Still, several Republicans, including No. 2 Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Barrasso, are seen as waiting in the wings to someday replace him.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who is also seen as a potential candidate to succeed McConnell, told reporters after the episode, “I support Senator McConnell as long as he wants to serve as leader.”
McConnell had polio in his early childhood and he has long acknowledged some difficulty as an adult in climbing stairs. In addition to his fall in March, he also tripped and fell four years ago at his home in Kentucky, causing a shoulder fracture that required surgery.
The Republican leader is one of several senators who have been absent due to health issues this year. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, 90, was out of the Senate for more than two months as she recovered from a bout of shingles. And Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., 53, took leave for several weeks to get treatment for clinical depression.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.