President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to project unity Monday amid heightening tensions between the president and Senate Republicans that threaten to complicate the GOP’s fall legislative agenda and midterm election strategy.
At a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden after a working lunch, Trump and McConnell tried to dismiss media reports of their troubled relationship and to demonstrate that they are on the same page when it comes to the effort to rewrite the nation’s tax laws.
But the lengthy public appearance veered into many other topics, as well, as Trump eagerly fielded a volley of questions on Puerto Rico, NFL anthem protests, Hillary Clinton and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
One uncomfortable element of the dynamic between McConnell and Trump continued to loom over the two men, even after their news conference ended: the actions of Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.
Bannon is waging an effort to unseat Republican senators loyal to the majority leader in the midterms by backing insurgent primary challengers. Trump said Monday that he has a “very good relationship” with Bannon. At the same time, he hinted he might try to persuade him not to take on certain GOP senators.
“Some of the people that he may be looking at – I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly they’re great people,” said Trump. He did not specify whom he had in mind.
McConnell explained that his midterm goal is simply to keep Republicans in control of the Senate majority. “Winners make policy, and losers go home,” he said bluntly.
Trump also said he plans to meet next week with Roy Moore, the controversial Republican Senate nominee in Alabama who defeated the candidate endorsed by both McConnell and Trump. Moore has been an outspoken critic of McConnell.
Moore visited Capitol Hill earlier this month but did not meet with McConnell or Trump. Bannon actively championed Moore during the primary.
Trump and McConnell both said they are aiming to complete a sweeping revision of the nation’s tax laws by the end of this year, although they left open the possibility that might not happen.
“We have the same agenda,” the majority leader said.
Still, there were some surprises. The president said he plans to release an “economic development bill” but that he has not yet briefed the Senate leader on it.
Earlier in the day, the tensions between Republican senators and Trump were on display at a Cabinet meeting where the president empathized with Bannon and blamed Senate Republicans for the GOP’s legislative woes.
Trump said at the meeting that Bannon was “very committed to getting things passed.” He added: “We’re not getting the job done. And I ‘m not going to blame myself, I’m going to be honest. They are not getting the job done.”
The president singled out Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who cast a decisive vote in the summer against a Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“You had a few people that really disappointed us. They really, really disappointed us,” he said. “So I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels. Okay?”
After Senate Republicans failed to dismantle the ACA, the relationship between Trump and McConnell worsened. The president took to blaming the majority leader publicly for the failure.
The outcome of the Alabama primary last month marked another disappointment to McConnell and Trump. It also gave a boost to Bannon’s effort to dislodge McConnell as Senate leader.
Trump’s feud with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has also rattled his relationship with Capitol Hill Republicans. Last week, while the Senate was away on recess, Republicans were not eager to enter the fray. The Senate is scheduled to return to session Monday afternoon.
Trump is making some efforts to mend fences with Republican senators he has clashed with in the past. He has played golf recently with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., who have criticized him sharply.
“I know the Republican senators,” Trump said at his Cabinet meeting. “Most of them are really, really great people that want to work hard and they want to do a great thing for the American public. But you had a few people that really disappointed us.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Sean Sullivan