Still reeling from the major blow delivered by the Senate's recent healthcare vote, Donald Trump escalated a stunning feud against his top Senate partner on Thursday. He suggested Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have to think about stepping aside if he doesn't deliver on the president's agenda of healthcare, taxes, and infrastructure.
Trump called McConnell's failure to pass an "Obamacare" repeal last month "a disgrace." Following McConnell's failed last-ditch effort to pass any legislation whatsoever, The New York Times noted that his reputation as "master tactician" had taken a major hit.
Asked if McConnell should consider stepping aside or retiring — an outcome some conservatives are openly clamoring for — the president's response was far from a vote of confidence.
"Well I tell you what, if he doesn't get repeal and replace done and if he doesn't get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn't get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure, if he doesn't get them done, then you can ask me that question," Trump told reporters in Bedminster, New Jersery, where he is in the midst of a 17-day vacation from Washington.
Trump later added that he is "very disappointed in Mitch" but would be the first to praise him if legislation begins moving, once again presenting himself as a passive observer in the process rather than a dealmaker with the presidential pulpit.
There was no immediate response from McConnell's office.
Trump's statement followed on the heels of comments made by McConnell during a low-profile speech in Kentucky on Monday. "Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before. I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process," McConnell said.
A sitting president openly turning on a Senate majority leader of his own party in such a fashion is practically unheard, yet it's another norm destroyed since Trump's rise on the political scene. Still, it's left Washington insiders bewildered. "This makes about as much sense as sidelining Tom Brady because you didn’t like his answer at a news conference," a senior GOP aide told Politico. "The reality is both men need each other to succeed."
And while the fighting words might elate Trump's core supporters, they can only hurt broader Republican efforts to move major legislation this fall on taxes and spending while preparing for congressional elections next year where energized Democrats are rallying to retake the House. Republicans control both chambers, but the Trump factor in many races remains a mystery.
Trump's comments came after he spent two days slamming McConnell on Twitter, writing Thursday morning that after "screaming" about repealing and replacing "Obamacare" for seven years, McConnell "couldn't get it done." Several hours later, the president's tone took a motivational turn as he exhorted McConnell to "get back to work" and pass bills. "You can do it!"
The presidential megaphone amplified the McConnell-bashing that's been snaking through conservative media: Breitbart News, Fox News' Sean Hannity, and radio host Rush Limbaugh are among those who have vilified the leader after the Senate's failure on healthcare late last month. They represent a segment of the Republican electorate, including some major donors, who are out to punish what they see as a "do-nothing Congress" that has hampered the president's goals.
McConnell is "a coward who leads from behind," ''spineless," and a lifelong "political animal" of the sort Trump wants to eject from Washington, said Doug Deason, a major donor based in Texas. Deason said he decided months ago not to give money to any Republicans up for re-election next year unless they can pass Trump's priorities.
Trump and his supporters love such political brawls, and the McConnell flare-up potentially shores up the president's base at a time when it is showing signs of weakening support. But other Republicans saw Trump's moves as counterproductive.
Even Newt Gingrich, a Trump backer and informal adviser who formerly served as speaker of the House, criticized the dispute.
"You saw Mitch McConnell say something, you saw Trump say something, when it's obviously better for them to learn not to do that," Gingrich said. "They have to work together. Governing is a team sport."
After the failure on healthcare, McConnell and other Republican leaders, including top White House economic officials, are determined to move on to overhauling the tax code with the hope of passing cuts by the end of the year — a daunting challenge. McConnell has made clear he has little interest in revisiting the healthcare fight.
Four GOP senators Dean Heller (NV), Jeff Flake (AZ), Charles Grassley (IA), and Orrin Hatch (UT) rallied to McConnell's defense, further illustrating the divide between where Republicans' loyalties lie.
Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who at times is openly critical of Trump, defended McConnell's handling of healthcare. "I don't think any of us in the Senate blame Mitch for how this came down," he said.
Trump, 71, and McConnell, 75, have never been easy allies, even though the senator's wife, Elaine Chao, is the president's transportation secretary. McConnell only met Trump for the first time in 2013, when he made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York to ask the businessman for campaign money.
But McConnell quickly boarded the Trump train once the mogul secured the GOP nomination and unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan and others, he never wavered. He's paid numerous visits to the White House and traveled with Trump in March to Louisville. That Trump rally predated all of Congress' attempts to redo healthcare, and the president urged the crowd to "be nice" to McConnell.
Fast forward to August, with the Senate on recess after the collapse of the GOP healthcare bill. McConnell clearly touched a nerve with his comments that Trump had "not been in this line of work before" and tensions escalated.
Following McConnell's comments, there was a "tense" phone call between the two men, according to a person familiar with the exchange but not authorized to speak publicly about a private discussion. The presidential Twitter screed followed.
Brent Bozell, a longtime McConnell detractor and president of the conservative social media group For America, said the Senate leader had made a ridiculous argument that will haunt him.
"By calling President Trump a political neophyte, McConnell is saying that Trump doesn't understand that Congress doesn't keep its promises," Bozell said. "This is exactly why Trump won — to shake up Washington, and that includes Republicans."
And yet, in opening a door he might want to try to shove McConnell out of, Trump once against demonstrated his naivete in Washington's ways. A Senate majority leader is elected by members of his own conference, and McConnell has plenty of support within his, regardless of anything Trump may say about it.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a senior lawmaker and vocal Trump backer, said on Twitter that McConnell "has been the best leader we've had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him."