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Base Approves as Trump Escalates Criticism of McConnell

President Donald Trump’s escalation of his rhetorical assault [1] on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday did not go over well with GOP senators, but it appears to have the approval of the conservative activist base.

After sending three separate tweets tweaking McConnell over the failure to repeal Obamacare [2] last month, Trump hit the senator during a pair of separate news conferences in Bedminster, New Jersey. He came close to calling for McConnell to step down as Senate Republican leader.

“Well, I’ll 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,” he said.

Trump made clear he remains upset over the way McConnell handled the health care debate.

"But I said, 'Mitch, get to work and let's get it done,'" he said. "They should have had this last one done. They lost by one vote. For a thing like that to happen is a disgrace. And frankly, it shouldn't happen. That I can tell you."

After receiving a security briefing, Trump took another shot at McConnell, praising the senator's wife — Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao — but reiterating his disapproval over the health care failure and urging him to pass the rest of the White House legislative agenda.

"I'm very disappointed in Mitch. But if he gets these bills passed, I'll be very happy with him," he said. "I'll be the first to admit it. But honestly, repeal and replace of Obamacare should have taken place and it should have been on my desk virtually the first week that I was there or the first day that I was there."

McConnell's office declined to comment. But some of his GOP colleagues came to the leader's defense. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) tweeted that McConnell "has been the best leader we've had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him." Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — a vocal critic of the president — tweeted that McConnell "does a tough job well. He has my support."

But Trump appears to be on safe ground with the public in criticizing congressional leaders. A Gallup poll released Wednesday shows public approval of Congress stands at 16 percent. That is the same approval rating among Republican voters. A roundup of recent surveys by HuffPost indicates that an average of 21.3 percent of voters approve of McConnell's performance, while 44.1 percent have an unfavorable opinion.

Those views align with conservative activists. David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, cheered Trump's forceful tone with congressional leaders.

"The president is absolutely right. It's something ForAmerica has been calling for since the very beginning of the administration," he said. "He's about to cross the rubicon there and start calling for their resignations if they can't get this done."

Bozell said Republicans risk electoral defeat in next year's midterm elections without a motivated base. He said McConnell should be more willing to punish recalcitrant members of his caucus to push tough initiatives over the finish line. He also expressed frustration with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Although giving Ryan points for passing legislation, he said neither the speaker nor McConnell appear to work with each other.

"In the long run, I think you are going to see a leadership change during this administration," he said.

Michael Johns, president and executive director of the Tea Party Community, also sided with Trump.

"The president has very understandable frustration that is shared by the American people," he said.

Johns, a onetime aide to former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, said McConnell violated the first rule of legislating by bringing the health care bill to the Senate floor without having lined up the votes. He said conservatives rightly criticized Democrats for writing the Affordable Care Act in secret and then rushing to a vote without input from rank-and-file lawmakers.

McConnell, Johns said, repeated the mistake. He said it would have been forgivable if he had kept the Senate in session through August to go back to the drawing board.

"We need to get away from that way of approaching politics," he said. "These are public servants … They essentially let five weeks go by when we're in the driver's seat."

Passing big-ticket items like health care and tax reform will not be easy, Johns said, adding that McConnell cannot afford to waste any time.

"[I hope] Mitch is hearing this and will return with a new sense of urgency," he said.

(photo credit, homepage and article images: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)