The rupture between President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell originated where so many of the president’s dramas do: with something he saw on TV.
Trump watched clips of McConnell criticizing him on the news and wasn’t happy. In a terse but loud conversation Wednesday, the president made clear he wasn’t to blame for the Obamacare failure and was displeased with the criticism he’s gotten for it. McConnell didn’t give any ground, said people briefed on the phone call, and there are no immediate plans to speak again.
By Thursday afternoon, after several angry tweets, Trump left open the possibility of asking McConnell to resign, saying his opinion would hinge on the majority leader’s ability to get a laundry list of things done—Obamacare repeal, tax cuts, infrastructure. “I’m very disappointed in Mitch,” Trump told reporters. “If he gets these bills passed, I’ll be very happy with him and I’ll be the first to admit it.”
The phone call, first reported by the New York Times, and Bedminster comments mirror what Trump has said in private, according to four White House officials and Trump friends: that he is preparing to distance himself from Republicans in Congress if they aren’t successful in passing legislation and will not take the blame for them if they can’t.
Increasingly, these people say, the president is prepared to cast himself as an outsider – and Congress as an “insider” Washington institution. He has reminded advisers his poll numbers are higher than Congress and that he ran against Washington – and wants bills to sign – and will blast his own party if he doesn’t get them. Trump believes that his supporters will largely blame Congress instead of him, two people who have spoken to him said.
“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!” Trump posted online Thursday morning.
A McConnell spokeswoman declined to respond to Trump’s criticisms and said their work would continue. “The Leader has repeatedly spoken about the path forward on repealing and replacing Obamacare – on the Senate floor, at media availabilities and in Kentucky,” said Antonia Ferrier, the spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, McConnell’s aides and advisers have been amazed at the president’s unwillingness to sell the health care bill publicly, his lack of policy knowledge, his seemingly unending appetite for chaos and his inability to control warring factions of aides, who complicate delicate negotiations by saying different things to different people.
The two men have talked from time to time on the phone, but the conversations have often been quick, and Trump often disregards McConnell’s advice. McConnell has told people after meeting with Trump in the White House that it is difficult to keep the president on topic and that he wanders around verbally in a way that McConnell – a man who does not see the purpose in unnecessary words – doesn’t understand.
Whether the public airing of grievances develops into a long-simmering feud that affects policy remains unclear, particularly ahead of a busy September where officials face a possible government shutdown.
Some White House aides said there has been abundant work going on behind the scenes to prepare for a robust September agenda, and people who know McConnell well say he likes to keep his head down – and probably shrugged off the tweets.
The two men have largely had a positive relationship for the past two years, carefully avoiding criticism of one another even as Trump has picked fights with beauty pageant queens, TV show hosts, and Republicans of his own party, including with Sen. John McCain.
“I expect that once Republicans return to Washington this will be long forgotten. McConnell and Trump have shared legislative goals and my expectation is they will focus on those as soon as Congress is back in session,” said Brian McGuire, a former McConnell chief of staff.
Yet Trump and his aides don’t see themselves as traditional party leaders. Trump is still sore about the unwillingness of many Republicans to embrace his candidacy last year. He talks occasionally about people who bucked him during the campaign last year and feels loyal only to people who are loyal and helpful to him.
Only one senator, Jeff Sessions, endorsed him – and was made attorney general. But he’s since been rewarded with a series of public criticisms from the president, who taunted Sessions for being “beleaguered” after he recused himself from the Russia probe that is touching the president’s family and advisers.
The president has been willing to threaten other Republicans, a tactic that angers McConnell, according to people who have spoken to him. Trump complains privately that Republicans don’t defend him enough, even as Republican leaders complain that all they seemingly do is defend him.
McConnell—who as Majority Leader often attends two fundraisers a day—says that protecting his members, even if they make mistakes, is of utmost importance, because he wants to keep his Republican majority. He has grown frustrated when Trump and his team haven’t sought to appoint Democrats from the Senate in key jobs – so Republicans could be elected in their stead.
Trump has said repeatedly in private conversations that he doesn’t understand why Congress is so slow and feels he has done “more than enough” to help, one senior administration official said. McConnell has urged the public and the White House to give Congress more time and has noted that it often takes several tries to get success.
“I think Trump has a point,” said David McIntosh, who leads Club for Growth, a grassroots Republican group. “The Senate Republicans built their majority on repealing Obamacare. They can’t just shrug it off and say, ‘We’ll move on, the Senate is a tough place to get things done.’ Something has to change, whether it’s personnel or something else, to get the job done.”
Senior administration officials say Republican members were frustrated at McConnell’s process on health care and didn’t feel consulted, complaining to the White House. Some—including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—have been public in their criticism, with Johnson calling a McConnell move a “breach of trust.”
“People feel like McConnell let us down here,” one senior administration official said.
Several people who know McConnell say Trump is also to blame for the health care bill failing, particularly with his ham-handed tactics on Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. That he didn’t travel the country for the bill – or made comments privately that damaged it or showed a lack of knowledge. Almost every time there would be a day of progress on the bill, there would be another White House distraction.
McConnell also doesn’t understand Trump’s tweets, particularly when they’re directed at him. Aides have to show McConnell what Trump said, because he doesn’t scroll through a smart phone to find them. “It’s like he doesn’t know he could just call and say the same thing,” one McConnell adviser said. “He wants the process and drama stories.”
McConnell has incredible control over much of Trump’s agenda, whether his appointments quickly move through the Senate and whether keynote items of his agenda get passed. Several people close to McConnell noted that he has widespread support in his caucus and received an endorsement from Sen. Orrin Hatch, an influential Utah Republican who heads up the committee responsible for tax reform. Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, also publicly supported McConnell Thursday.
Another adviser to McConnell said: “There may come a time that requires members to put a lot on the line to try and protect him. The stuff that he is doing currently will lead to a situation when he is all alone when it matters most.”
But Trump often ratchets conflicts one way – up. So when given a chance to defend McConnell Thursday, he instead continued to criticize.
Elana Schor contributed to this report.