Trump’s at­tacks on McCon­nell could cost pres­i­dent when he needs GOP loy­alty

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz

The world has got­ten an­other clear-eyed look at Pres­i­dent Trump as he con­tin­ues to rat­tle cages dur­ing his work­ing va­ca­tion at his golf course in Bed­min­ster, N. J. He has dis­played one gear, one speed — at­tack and at­tack again.

When he is un­happy, it shows. This week his ire has been fo­cused on two in­di­vid­u­als — one an ob­vi­ous ad­ver­sary and the other, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, a pre­sumed ally. The ad­ver­sary is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The ally is Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.).

Trump’s tweets and state­ments have es­ca­lated ten­sions be­tween the United States and North Korea and seem­ingly put the pres­i­dent at odds, again, with some of his na­tional se­cu­rity team on the best ap­proach to a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. But there may be a pur­pose be­hind all the blus­ter as his ad­min­is­tra­tion seeks to do what pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions have failed to do, which is to per­suade the North Kore­ans to give up their quest to be­come a nu­clear power.

Trump’s com­ments about McCon­nell are far more baf­fling. That McCon­nell has be­come a tar­get for crit­i­cism is an un­ex­pected and pos­si­bly a de­struc­tive turn in Trump’s pres­i­dency. The ten­sions be­tween the two lead­ers have ex­isted since long be­fore Trump was elected pres­i­dent. But nei­ther Trump nor McCon­nell can af­ford to be at open war with one an­other. That, at least, is what McCon­nell al­lies be­lieve.

Af­ter an am­bigu­ous com­ment Thurs­day that left open whether he thinks McCon­nell should step down as leader, Trump re­sumed the at­tacks with more tweet­ing on Fri­day morn­ing, mak­ing clear he thinks the strat­egy is work­ing well.

Trump would say that McCon­nell started all this with what was a rather bland state­ment that the pres­i­dent per­haps had ex­ces­sive ex­pec­ta­tions about the process of en­act­ing leg­is­la­tion. That set the pres­i­dent off with a se­ries of tweets and com­ments about the Se­nate leader. What Trump might re­gard as a lit­tle prod­ding from afar, how­ever, oth­ers see as one more step out­side the bound­aries of what is con­sid­ered pres­i­den­tial or po­lit­i­cally wise.

Repub­li­can con­gres­sional lead­ers are cer­tainly vul­ner­a­ble to crit­i­cism. For seven years, they took the easy path, rail­ing against the Af­ford­able Care Act, promis­ing to re­peal it, vot­ing scores of times to do so when there was no pos­si­bil­ity that they would have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their ac­tions. They reaped the po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits of mak­ing Oba­macare a po­lit­i­cal punch­ing bag to rouse their con­ser­va­tive base. When it counted, when there was a pres­i­dent who would sign such a bill, they couldn’t de­liver.

Trump’s crit­i­cisms re­flect long-stand­ing frus­tra­tions with GOP lead­ers among grass-roots con­ser­va­tives pre­dat­ing the 2016 elec­tion. The tea party erup­tion in 2009 and 2010, which put Repub­li­cans in con­trol of Congress, pro­duced a sub­se­quent back­lash among many of those vot­ers, who came to re­gard GOP lead­ers in Washington as feck­less and in­ef­fec­tive in power.

Trump can right­fully claim that one rea­son he was elected was be­cause enough vot­ers saw that in­ef­fec­tive­ness and blamed those in power — Democrats and Repub­li­cans — for in­ac­tion, grid­lock and self-pro­tec­tion. The swamp he promised to drain is cen­tered on Capi­tol Hill. He made that clear on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day. With the po­lit­i­cal elite from Congress sit­ting be­hind him on the Capi­tol’s West Front, he lam­basted law­mak­ers.

“For too long, a small group in our na­tion’s cap­i­tal has reaped the re­wards of gov­ern­ment while the peo­ple have borne the cost,” he said that day. He added, “Politi­cians pros­pered — but the jobs left, and the fac­to­ries closed. The es­tab­lish­ment pro­tected it­self but not the cit­i­zens of our coun­try.”

The pres­i­dent is far from blame­less here. He bought into the “re­peal and re­place” mantra as a can­di­date, then did lit­tle to help in the ef­fort to turn that prom­ise into a leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ment. The Se­nate’s man­gled ef­fort col­lapsed when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long a Trump neme­sis, voted no. Was that McCon­nell’s do­ing? Or was it a bit of pay­back by the Ari­zona sen­a­tor to a pres­i­dent who ques­tioned whether McCain de­served to be called a hero af­ter be­ing tor­tured and held cap­tive in a North Viet­namese prison camp for more than five years?

For a long time, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was Trump’s pre­ferred tar­get. McCon­nell was of­ten more shrewd than Ryan in han­dling the pres­i­dent’s out­bursts. When he ex­pressed dis­plea­sure with Trump, he did so in typ­i­cally con­tained fash­ion. He gen­er­ally kept his head down and his opin­ions to him­self. He re­fused to be drawn too far into the fight.

But Ryan’s House suc­ceeded where McCon­nell’s Se­nate failed. The House passed a health-care bill, and the Se­nate did not. The pres­i­dent now seems to want a Se­nate do-over, an­other at­tempt to do what seems for now close to im­pos­si­ble. McCon­nell has no in­ter­est in go­ing that route again, given the other is­sues await­ing Congress upon its re­turn.

The pres­i­dent’s tweets sug­gest that he doesn’t un­der­stand the leg­isla­tive branch and doesn’t par­tic­u­larly want to. His tweets at the time the health bill died in the Se­nate con­veyed a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the rules. His tweets this week con­vey a lack of un­der­stand­ing of what faces Congress when law­mak­ers re­turn in Septem­ber — the debt limit and fund­ing the gov­ern­ment.

David Ro­hde, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at Duke Univer­sity, said the most plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion of Trump’s de­ci­sion to take on McCon­nell this week is an ef­fort to play di­rectly to his base. “For all the talk about fake polls, Trump and his col­lab­o­ra­tors must re­al­ize that their po­lit­i­cal sup­port is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing and that the pos­si­bil­ity of a real po­lit­i­cal catas­tro­phe 15 months from now is in­creas­ing,” he said in an email mes­sage.

Ro­hde went on to say this tac­tic by Trump might be the best of a bad set of op­tions. “If they can main­tain the base sup­port, then Trump’s po­lit­i­cal fate will hinge on the hope of an­other asym­met­ric midterm turnout tilted in their fa­vor,” he said. He added that he doubts this will be suc­cess­ful in any case.

How­ever un­der­stand­able Trump’s frus­tra­tions, he risks fur­ther ero­sion in his re­la­tion­ship with con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans by tar­get­ing McCon­nell. He got a taste of this a few weeks ago, when Repub­li­can sen­a­tors ral­lied be­hind their for­mer col­league, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, af­ter the pres­i­dent be­gan to hec­tor Ses­sions the way he is hec­tor­ing McCon­nell this week.

In a Trump-McCon­nell face­off, law­mak­ers will side with the ma­jor­ity leader. When the pres­i­dent needs Repub­li­cans to take dif­fi­cult votes on his be­half in the fu­ture, some may think twice. For some time, it has been ap­par­ent that mem­bers of Congress do not fear the pres­i­dent. Now the bonds of loy­alty be­tween Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill and their pres­i­dent are be­ing strained. Trump may need that loy­alty in the months ahead, de­pend­ing on the shape of spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Trump acts as if be­ing pres­i­dent puts him atop the en­tire gov­ern­ment, and that from that perch he can is­sue com­mands and dic­tates that he ex­pects oth­ers to fol­low. If he re­spects the con­sti­tu­tional checks and bal­ances built into the sys­tem by the Found­ing Fa­thers, he is good at hid­ing it. The at­tack on McCon­nell may be only a pass­ing sum­mer storm. Or it could be some­thing far worse for an em­bat­tled pres­i­dent.

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