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 stared vacantly for around 20 seconds before his colleagues in Republican leadership, who were standing behind him and could not see his face, took 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 Senator 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.
Asked about what happened, McConnell said he was “fine.” Asked if he is still able to do his job, he said, “Yeah.”
A McConnell aide said he felt lightheaded and stepped away for a moment. The aide requested anonymity to speak about the senator’s health.
McConnell, 81, was out of the Senate for almost six weeks earlier this year after falling and hitting his head. His office later said he suffered a concussion and fractured a rib. His speech has recently sounded more halting, prompting questions among some of his colleagues about his health.
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.”
McConnell was reelected easily to another term to lead the conference last year, despite a challenge from Florida Senator Rick Scott. But several Republicans, including No. 2 Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Barrasso, are seen as waiting in the wings to someday replace McConnell as leader.
Texas Senator 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.”
The Republican leader is one of several senators who have been absent because of health issues this year. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, 90, was out of the Senate for more than two months after suffering from a bout of shingles. And Senator John Fetterman, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, 53, took a weekslong leave to get treatment for clinical depression.