Why the Trump-McConnell Détente Is Unlikely to Last

Despite soothing statements, tensions will escalate as White House and loyalists grow impatient

President Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, tried to make nice Wednesday after a bruising few days in which The New York Times reported the two men had not spoken since a nasty fight on the phone Aug. 9.

Both Trump and McConnell released statements expressing confidence in their relationship and in together tackling the legislative challenges ahead.

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McConnell, the Senate GOP chief who has held his Kentucky seat since 1985, even said The Times “is clearly not part of the conversation,” and that his staff and staff in the White House work together regularly.

Yet it says a lot that both Trump and McConnell had to issue the statements.

It happened after a bruising week in which Trump took some of the hardest hits of his young presidency over racist violence in Virginia.

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On Tuesday night, the nation’s chief executive was expected to sing a song of unity in Phoenix. Such a song of unity was supposed to comfort nervous members of the GOP-led Senate.

Instead, Trump veered off topic and let the GOP-led Senate know he was deeply unhappy. He bashed Arizona’s two senators without naming them, on their own home turf (and to cheers). That is a major no-no to incumbent senators. The president reveled in shredding the rules.

Trump also threatened a government shutdown over the funding of his top campaign promise, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. A shutdown over the debt ceiling is not on the Senate’s agenda — not by a long shot. The line spurred House Speaker Paul Ryan to warn the president on Wednesday night, suggesting the debt-ceiling vote in the fall should not be mingled with other issues.

But perhaps most shocking of all, Trump said the Senate should get rid of the filibuster rule, which allows a minority of senators to kill a bill from advancing.

It all seemed calculated to rile the nation’s “most deliberative” body, the U.S. Senate, and its majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

Late Wednesday afternoon, McConnell put out a statement denying the report in The Times — printed just before Trump’s Tuesday Phoenix rally — that the two men have not spoken in “weeks.” The Times story also suggested McConnell had been suggesting to friends that he is not sure Trump can salvage his presidency.

The tension peaked on Aug. 9, when the two men last spoke, and Trump reportedly used profanity about McConnell’s handling of the agenda, according to The Times.

It was an incendiary charge made by anonymous sources. To make matters more uncomfortable, Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is McConnell’s wife.

Chao stood by him during his off-the-cuff press conference on Aug. 15 at Trump Tower, when Trump made the controversial remark that “both sides” were responsible for violence in the Charlottesville, Virginia, incident of Aug. 12. Chao said after the press event concluded that she “stand(s) by my man, both of them.”

McConnell said in his statement that he, too, would be standing by Trump.

“The president and I, and our teams, have been and continue to be in regular contact about our shared goals,” said McConnell in a statement emailed to media. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we are committed to advancing our shared agenda together, and anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation.”

The White House then issued a statement to the media just before 6 p.m.

“[Trump and McConnell] will hold previously scheduled meetings following the August recess to discuss … critical items with members of the congressional leadership and the president’s Cabinet,” read the statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “White House and leadership staff are coordinating regarding the details of those meetings.”

Clearly, the two men don’t want to see the feud become set in stone. But tensions have been simmering for about two weeks, and Trump loyalists outside the White House have escalated their attacks on McConnell.

Among those putting the screws to McConnell is Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, who left his job on Friday as Trump’s chief tactician.

Breitbart twisted the screws on McConnell on Wednesday, with a headline suggesting he could lose his position as majority leader if he did not deliver on the Trump agenda by the end of September.

Trump’s irritation with the Senate grew as Trump saw one of his top goals, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, fail in the Senate by one vote — that of Arizona’s John McCain — in late July. But about 200 Republican bills passed by the House of Representatives await Senate action.

Trump doesn’t accept McConnell’s excuse, made publicly, that Trump may have expected too much from the Senate in the first 200 days.

It has Trump eyeing major disruption to the stuffy body known as the Senate. Urging McConnell to get rid of the Senate filibuster — an old rule, not required by the Constitution — is bringing unpleasant heat to the problematic Senate rule. The filibuster rule has existed for two centuries, but has been frequently abused in the past 50 years.

Trump will also note that McConnell promised, with Speaker Paul Ryan, to stick to a 200-day agenda, a promise made at a GOP retreat in January. Those 200 days came and went after Trump’s inauguration, and tax reform is said to be unlikely until the spring of 2018 — dangerously close to the midterm election of November 2018.

No landmark legislation has been passed, and only five top judicial appointments (including Neil Gorsuch, the new Supreme Court justice) have been approved so far by the Senate.

Trump is growing impatient, and despite the soothing press releases of Wednesday, it is likely Trump’s allies will escalate the war on McConnell if the Trump agenda remains stalled in the Senate.

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

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Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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