By John Wagner, Ed O’Keefe and Paul Kane,
President Trump aimed a fresh barrage of criticism at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Thursday, escalating an extraordinary fight with a key Republican leader that could undermine the party’s ability to regroup and pass shared legislative priorities this fall.
In a series of demeaning tweets and public statements, Trump blamed the Kentucky Republican, who remains popular among GOP senators, for the party’s failure to muscle through an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act. The president also urged McConnell to “get back to work” on that and other campaign promises, including cutting taxes and spurring new infrasturcture spending.
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Trump declined to say whether McConnell should resign but said they should ask him again if the Senate leader fails to deliver on the president’s leading priorities.
Trump’s said he was particularly miffed by a Senate vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act that failed by a single vote.
“For a thing like that to happen is a disgrace, and frankly it shouldn’t have happened, that I can tell you,” Trump said.
Trump associates said the attacks, which began Wednesday night and resumed Thursday, were intended to shore up Trump’s outside-the-Beltway populist credentials and would likely resonate with core supporters frustrated by a lack of progress in Washington.
But the tweets were quickly met with public and private defenses of McConnell — and rebukes of Trump. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), tweeted: “@SenateMajLdr has been the best leader we’ve had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him.” And former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser, said on Fox News that the president bears some responsibility for the Republican failure on Obamacare.
“The fact is with a very narrow margin — 52 people — Mitch McConnell got 49 out of 52,” Gingrich said. “I think the president can’t disassociate himself from this. “[Trump] is part of the leadership team. He is not an observer sitting up in the stands. He is on the field. It was a collective failure.”
Even some Republicans close to the president suggested the move would hurt him on Capitol Hill, where relations with GOP leaders are already seriously frayed.
“This strategy only alienates his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill that he needs to move his agenda,” said one Republican strategist close to the White House who requested anonymity to speak more candidly. “The reality is that the president is now part of this process despite his frustrations, and yelling at his Senate quarterback isn’t going to help achieve these wins.”
Trump, who is on a working vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., has remained bitter about the collapse of Republican efforts to repeal and replace former president Barack Obama’s health law, a pledge the party has made since 2010 and a marquee campaign promise for Trump.
“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning. “Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!”
A few hours later, the president took to Twitter again, writing: “Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure Bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!”
Trump’s tweets came in the wake of McConnell’s suggestion earlier in the week that Trump’s lack of political experience had led to “excessive expectations” for passing major legislation.
The president has also faced heavy criticism for the fate of the health-care legislation. While he repeatedly called on lawmakers to dismantle Obamacare, he did relatively little to help develop — or sell — their replacement plans to the public at a time when polls showed the legislation was highly unpopular.
Trump’s tweets this week come as lawmakers are poised to try to tackle other shared but challenging priorities when they return from their August recess. Besides Trump’s leading agenda items, they are also faced with trying to craft a budget and raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
“Discerning a particular strategy or goal from these tweets is hard,” said Doug Heye, a Republican National Committee communications director and former Capitol Hill staffer. “It just doesn’t help enact any part of his agenda, and it sends a further troubling sign to Capitol Hill Republicans already wary of the White House.”
Heye said that with Trump’s job approval numbers declining among the Republican base, “now is the time to build support within the party.”
White House aides said Trump has a general frustration with McConnell that extends beyond the health-care debate.
“You can see the president’s tweets,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday. “Obviously there’s some frustration.”
Barry Bennett, an adviser to Trump during last year’s campaign, said the president was speaking to a Republican Party that has become a “firmly anti-Washington party.”
“It may not be a winning tactic, but it’s certainly a winning message,” Bennett said.
McConnell, to this point, has been one of the most steadfast supporters of Trump’s agenda in Congress, and at least publicly, Trump has enjoyed a smoother relationship with McConnell than House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and other congressional leaders.
In April, McConnell orchestrated the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neil M. Gorsuch, changing the Senate rules so that Democrats could not block the nomination. The Gorsuch confirmation remains Trump’s largest victory on Capitol Hill to date.
McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, another prominent Washington figure, also serves in Trump’s Cabinet as transportation secretary.
In his remarks Monday to the Rotary Club of Florence, Ky., McConnell said, “Our new president had of course not been in this line of work before.” He added: “I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”
McConnell said people think Congress is underperforming partly because “artificial deadlines, unrelated to the reality of the complexity of legislating, may not have been fully understood.”
Sanders said that Trump and McConnell spoke by phone Wednesday, a conversation in which Trump made clear he wants to continue to press for passage of a health-care bill. The call was first reported by the New York Times.
The same day, Trump took his first shot at McConnell on Twitter.
“Senator Mitch McConnell said I had ‘excessive expectations,’ but I don’t think so,” the president wrote on Wednesday. “After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?”
In another sign of frayed relations between Trump and Republican senators, one of the president’s largest political benefactors is providing a $300,000 contribution to a super PAC that aims to unseat Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz), who has been critical of the president.
Politico first reported that Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire heavily involved in Trump’s political ascendancy, is making a donation to a group supporting former Arizona state senator Kelli Ward, who is challenging Flake in a Republican primary next year.
Ward emailed a fundraising pitch to supporters on Thursday, calling out McConnell for “finger pointing at President Trump” instead of working to pass a GOP health care plan.
“Despite the promises, nothing is getting done,” she wrote. “It’s more of the same from these so-called ‘public servants.’”
Despite the public criticism, Trump and McConnell have been in frequent contact, usually by telephone, to discuss legislative strategy, aides said.
Privately, senior GOP congressional aides across Capitol Hill have said it’s Trump and his team — not McConnell — who deserve the blame for the collapse of the GOP’s health-care plan. The aides gripe that Trump seriously damaged relationships with key Republican senators over the course of the months-long debacle.
Trump has singled out certain senators either via Twitter or by placing them next to him during staged White House meetings to make it look like he’s squeezing them — a visual that often leads to awkward still photos of the senators’ facial reactions.
At one point this summer, Trump was flanked at a White House meeting by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who both voted against the health-care measure. At the mid-July meeting, it was Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) seated next to Trump. The president called him out with cameras rolling for wavering on the health-care bill.
“Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump said as Heller laughed uncomfortably.
Heller ultimately voted for the bill, but the exchange with Trump is a scene that Democratic aides have vowed will appear prominently in future campaign attack ads against the senator, who is the most vulnerable GOP incumbent facing reelection next year.
Trump’s long-standing feud with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hasn’t helped the overall dynamic either. The senator voted against the health-care plan in a closely-watched late night vote — even after Trump made a direct last-minute appeal by phone.
The pair have been at loggerheads on several occasions since Trump two years ago criticized the senator for being captured during the Vietnam War and refused to apologize despite a national outcry.
In addition to criticizing Trump — and McConnell — for the contours of the health-care debate, McCain this week has blasted the president’s comments on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in interviews with Arizona radio stations.
On Thursday, he also released legislation that would implement a new military strategy in Afghanistan — a proposed amendment to the annual defense policy bill that McCain said he unveiled in the absence of a new coherent strategy from Trump.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has had a contentious relationship with McConnell, said Thursday that he was sympathetic to Trump in the wake of the health-care bill’s failure.
“President Trump is at his desk with a pen ready to sign what Congress was going to send him and we didn’t,” Johnson said during an interview on CNN. “And I completely feel his frustration. I’m every bit as frustrated.”
Asked whether he thought taking aim at McConnell on Twitter was the right tactic, Johnson demurred.
“I’ll let this president speak for himself and his tactics,” he said.
Trump’s social media firestorm marks his first concerted attacks against McConnell. Throughout the 2016 campaign, while other GOP lawmakers wavered in their support of the GOP nominee, McConnell never did. He criticized some of Trump’s more outlandish statements, but it was usually muted compared with other Republicans, and McConnell preferred to deliver his critiques in private.
So when Trump lashed out at fellow Republicans, it was directed mostly at Ryan and McCain, who frequently criticized Trump in public. Trump even threatened to support primary opponents running against Ryan and McCain last year.
Behind the scenes during the campaign, McConnell served almost as a tutor to Trump on the key issue of handling the Supreme Court vacancy after the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
At McConnell’s urging, Trump released lists of more than 20 potential nominees, names that were culled by Trump’s advisers from discussions with the Federalist Society, the conservative group focused on judicial matters that is close to McConnell.
Trump’s handling of the court vacancy helped rally evangelical conservatives to his side, a key factor in his narrow victory last fall over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
However, inside the White House, Trump has a collection of advisers who have had antagonistic relationships with McConnell and Senate GOP leadership.
Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, came from Breitbart, where his news organization regularly antagonized McConnell’s leadership team. Stephen Miller, chief policy adviser to Trump, was not considered an ally to the Senate leader’s staff when Miller was a top adviser to Jeff Sessions in the Senate.
Moreover, one of Trump’s top legislative affairs advisers is Paul Teller, who served as Sen. Ted Cruz’s top aide during a period when the Texas Republican accused McConnell of lying about trade legislation.
And Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, was a constant critic of the Senate during his three terms in the House, regularly opposing fiscal compromise deals that McConnell brokered with the Obama White House.
Phil Rucker and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
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