If you believe the New York Times, President Donald Trump hasn’t spoken to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in weeks, and their last phone call was an angry exchange that “quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.” While neither man commented on the record for the article, the information clearly came from sources close to McConnell, who conveyed the senator’s view that that president is unable to learn “the basics of governing,” as well as his worries that Trump is leading the Republican party to disaster.
After several months of off-and-on attempts to work with McConnell, it appears Trump is raising the stakes in their confrontation, with the state of Arizona being the site of what appears to be a looming proxy war. Trump’s endorsement last week of a gadfly activist’s primary challenge to incumbent senator Jeff Flake may have been the last straw for McConnell, as their simmering feud is now being fought in the open.
Tuesday night in Phoenix, Trump made clear his low opinion of the Senate and its leader. Though McConnell was mentioned directly only once — when Trump demanded that the Senate abolish the filibuster — there was little doubt that the rally’s enthusiastic chants of “drain the swamp” were directed at Republican rather than Democratic swamp-dwellers. The appearance was not so much an off-year election rally for Trump as it was the continuation of last year’s campaign against the leadership of the party that nominated him.
With the crowd roaring approval for his challenge, there’s little doubt Trump thinks he’s holding all the cards in his battle with McConnell, an aloof Washington insider who has never been popular with the grassroots of the party. While McConnell and the rest of the political world think the administration’s troubles are the result of an undisciplined president who can’t be bothered to learn how to work the system or to stay on message, Trump blames congressional Republicans who won’t do his bidding. So he is stepping up his war on McConnell and company on Twitter and using them as piñatas at appearances where he can count on the applause of his adoring fans.
But McConnell is showing no signs that he’s intimidated by any of this. Indeed, the very same day Trump showed up in Arizona, a super PAC aligned with the majority leader released an ad targeting Kelli Ward, the candidate Trump has been encouraging to run against Flake. McConnell will also be hosting a fundraising dinner this week for the embattled senator. Meanwhile, other Senate Republicans — including some who have supported Trump in the past, albeit tamely, such as Tennessee’s Bob Corker — are, in the wake of the fallout from Charlottesville, newly willing to say in public that they have had enough of the president.
To Trump’s supporters this is just a sign of the D.C. establishment closing ranks. Many think, as Roger Stone confidently told the Times, that the GOP will fall in line once Trump has “taken a scalp” and starts “bumping off Republican members of Congress in primaries.” But contrary to Stone, McConnell is not “wetting his pants” about the prospect. Instead, the senator and his colleagues are sending Trump a message that they will not be steamrolled and have no intention of losing their majority thanks to candidates such as Ward who would loose winnable seats, like the Tea Party’s Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell in 2010.
It remains to be seen whether a grassroots effort for an outlier such as Ward, or even a more respectable challenger to Flake, will catch fire. But what Trump is forgetting is that as much as he still holds the affection of much of the GOP base, he needs McConnell if he’s going to get done any of the things he wants done. This includes U.S. taxpayer funding for the border wall that he repeatedly claimed Mexico would pay for.
The point here is not just that Trump’s threats of inciting a government shutdown over wall funding would be a political disaster for all Republicans. It’s that Trump is forgetting that insurgent tactics, though they won him the nomination, can’t get results on Capitol Hill against a determined and experienced foe who knows how to work the system. While most Senate Republicans would prefer not to be the president’s targets — a status that Flake invited with a pretentious book in which he posed as a defender of conservative principles — they are also not sufficiently scared of the White House that they would turn on McConnell or, at the president’s behest, fail to pass popular legislation such as sanctions on Russia (the passage of which ignited the angriest response from Trump).
It ought to be painfully obvious to the White House that a battle with McConnell is not one either side can win.
A president who understood how Congress worked and was sufficiently immersed in the details to be able to make deals with senators might be able to hold his own against McConnell. But, as we saw with his incoherent efforts on Obamacare repeal and replace, Trump lacks both the knowledge and the focus to compete on this ground. Nor, as was evident when he folded on Russia sanctions, can Trump stand up to a Republican Senate that is mobilized against him.
It ought to be painfully obvious to the White House that a battle with McConnell is not one either side can win. By stoking internecine warfare, Trump is heading down a path that ends in legislative stalemates that hurt him. Ultimately, it could also mean smaller GOP majorities if not his ultimate nightmare: a Democratic House, which would almost certainly move to impeach him.
Someone with the president’s ear should remind him that, notwithstanding his mendacious boasts of having done more than any other president in his first months, his only tangible achievement — the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — was due to McConnell’s efforts and not the White House’s. Trump’s fans clearly hate McConnell and his colleagues as much as, if not more than, they hate the Democrats. But if Trump still has hopes of governing rather than merely using the White House as a platform for his public vendettas against the media and recalcitrant Republicans, he’s going to need to cope with his rage and make peace with the majority leader.