Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tends toward restraint in public comments, but his observation that President Trump, as a newcomer to politics, had “excessive expectations” about the legislative process provoked an unexpected war with the White House that shows no signs of easing.
Trump, in tweet after scalding tweet, has turned on McConnell, attacking the Republican Senate leader — and at times House Speaker Paul D. Ryan — in a relentless barrage that continued Thursday, long after each sides’ offices had tried to put the matter to rest by pledging to work together on shared GOP priorities.
The outbursts from the president have not only driven a wedge between the White House and its Capitol Hill allies, they have also exposed the limits of the president’s understanding of how to interact with Congress and how the legislative branch works.
In many ways, Trump’s escalating retorts have only proven McConnell’s initial criticism correct.
This week, for example, Trump picked a fight with Congress over his proposed border wall with Mexico, threatening a government shutdown if lawmakers fail to provide construction funds, even though Trump once promised the money would come from Mexico. Though the wall was a key Trump campaign promise, it is not a priority for his party, particularly those who would rather cut government spending.
In recent weeks, Trump has started blaming the collapse of the GOP healthcare overhaul on “one vote” — referring to Sen. John McCain’s stunning dissent. In fact, the so-called “skinny” Obamacare repeal bill that McCain helped defeat was merely a placeholder for continued negotiations, and it remained highly uncertain whether the broader effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would have succeeded.
The president has also been pushing for elimination of the Senate filibuster, making it easier to pass legislation with a simple majority. But most senators from both parties resist that idea, preferring to preserve the Senate’s longstanding protection of minority views. Besides, top agenda items — healthcare and tax reform — can be accomplished under rules that only require 51 votes for passage.
And on Thursday, Trump second-guessed GOP leaders’ plan for the upcoming debt limit battle, saying Congress should have linked that difficult vote to a popular Veterans Affairs bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Most view that idea as overly simplistic, saying such a maneuver would have more likely backfired and defeated both measures.
“I requested that Mitch M & Paul R tie the Debt Ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill (which just passed) for easy approval. They......didn't do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval,” he tweeted. “Could have been so easy-now a mess!”
Presidents have always encountered challenges with the legislative branch, even when the House and Senate are controlled by their own party. But Trump seems to negotiate with leaders in Congress in a way that more resembles his business experience — as an employer directing his employees, rather than as co-equal partners in government.
Trump appears to be unaware, or unconcerned, with the deepening divisions he is creating among the very leaders and lawmakers he will need to rely on for passage of the bills he wants to sign into law.
As the probe into Russian election meddling intensifies, Trump has been reaching out to some senators directly, sometimes with mixed results.
He called Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who led passage of a Russia sanctions bill, to express his displeasure with the legislation. He also reached out to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), author of legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III from being fired from the Russia inquiry.
After Trump defended white supremacists last week after the Charlottesville violence, Corker said that Trump has not shown the “stability” needed of a president.
Asked about Corker’s statement Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blasted the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who was once under consideration to be Trump’s secretary of State, calling his “ridiculous and outrageous claim” not worthy of a response.
Trump renewed his attacks Thursday, even as McConnell tried to move past their public spat. The two reportedly have not spoken since the president berated him in a profanity-lace phone call earlier this month over the Senate leader’s failure to shield the president from the Russia investigation and the healthcare bill’s demise.
“The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed!That should NEVER have happened!”
Republicans in Congress, who have the majority in both chambers, have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, despite their hunger for leadership to unite the fractured party, they are largely on their own.
As they prepare for a turbulent fall session, when Congress will need to fund the government for the new fiscal year to avert a federal government shutdown and raise the debt limit to avoid a financial crisis, many lawmakers feel they are without a reliable partner in the White House to build public support.
“Congress members are by and large nervous creatures,” said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and chairman of the right-leaning American Conservative Union. “There's no question they're nervous right now and they're nervous about the White House.”
Ryan this week downplayed Trump’s threats to shut down the government over the border wall, insisting Congress had no intention of repeating what many Republicans viewed as a political mistake in 2013 when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) led the party to shut down the government for 16 days over an effort to defund Obamacare.
"I don't think a government shutdown's necessary and I don't think most people want to see a government shutdown, ourselves included," Ryan told reporters at event in Oregon.
McConnell, at a speech Thursday to farmers in Kentucky, returned to his usual restraint, making note of some of Trump’s accomplishments since taking office, such as lifting federal regulations.
Sanders insisted the president’s relationship with congressional leaders is “fine,” and that Trump and McConnell are scheduled to meet once lawmakers return in September to discuss shared priorities, including tax reform, infrastructure, healthcare and the agenda ahead.
Trump, though, has rarely shown a willingness to shift his approach, and his current regard for Congress was apparent during his rally this week in Phoenix.
It was only toward the end of a combative speech, after complaining about the home-state senators and the media, that Trump acknowledged he must rely on lawmakers as he pursues tax reform and his agenda ahead.
It seemed almost like an afterthought. “We need the help of Congress,” Trump said.