By John Wagner, Ed O’Keefe and Paul Kane,
President Trump stepped up his criticism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday for not muscling through a health-care bill, escalating an extraordinary fight with a key leader of his own party.
“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!”
Trump’s morning tweet was his second in 24 hours targeting McConnell for remarks the Kentucky Republican made earlier in the week suggesting that Trump’s lack of political experience had led to“excessive expectations” for passing major legislation.
Trump has remained bitter about the failure of congressional Republicans to pass a bill overhauling the Affordable Care Act, a pledge the party has made since 2010 and a marquee campaign promise for Trump.
The sparring with McConnell was the latest sign of increasingly strained relations between Trump and Republicans in Congress, who have had few victories since January despite the GOP’s control of the White House and both the House and Senate.
Since the collapse of a health-care bill, Trump has belittled GOP senators as looking like “fools” and suggested they change the chamber’s rules to make it easier to pass bills.
The president’s attacks on a leader popular among Senate Republicans comes as lawmakers are poised to try to tackle other shared — but challenging — priorities in the fall, including a tax overhaul. They also are 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 consultant 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. I don’t have anything more to add.”
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 GOP 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 confirmed 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, while on a 17-day working vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., 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. “After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?”
Earlier Wednesday, Dan Scavino Jr., the White House social media director, also went after McConnell on Twitter.
“More excuses,” wrote Scavino, an outspoken Trump loyalist. “@SenateMajLdr must have needed another 4 years — in addition to the 7 years — to repeal and replace Obamacare…..”
Sean Hannity, a Fox News host often sympathetic to Trump, also weighed in following McConnell’s remarks, writing on Twitter: “@SenateMajLdr No Senator, YOU are a WEAK, SPINELESS leader who does not keep his word and you need to Retire!”
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.
Flake has been on a book tour promoting “Conscience of a Conservative,” in which he argues that the GOP is in denial about the Trump presidency.
Despite the public criticism, Trump and McConnell are in frequent contact, usually by telephone, to discuss legislative strategy, aides said. The last time they met in person was July 19, when Trump hosted Republican senators at the White House and implored them to continue working to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
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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