Grassroots conservatives are cheering on President Trump’s attacks on Senate Majority Leader (R-Ky.), even as Republicans inside the Beltway express anger and confusion.
Trump has assailed McConnell repeatedly this week for the failure to pass legislation that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare.
Republican senators have rushed to McConnell’s defense — much as they did when one of their former colleagues, Attorney General , found himself in Trump’s sights late last month.
ADVERTISEMENTEven some Washington voices that are normally supportive of the president, such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), have suggested Trump is going too far.
But it is a very different story among conservatives whose frustration with the ways of Washington propelled Trump’s rise.
“The overarching theme from coast to coast was that people wanted to take a wrecking ball to Washington and they were hopeful that would be elected and would be that wrecking ball,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
The establishment pushback on Trump’s comments, she asserted, was evidence of “just how thick the resistance is inside the swamp.”
Trump’s outsider cachet has given him significantly more popularity than McConnell among conservatives.
The Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling last month found McConnell’s job performance winning approval from only 30 percent of Republicans, while 46 percent disapproved. For Trump, 81 percent of Republicans approved and only 16 percent disapproved.
Those numbers provide an important context to this week’s jibes, with Trump taking on McConnell via Twitter and in comments to reporters.
“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done,” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
Later that day, he implored McConnell, “Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure Bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!”
As if that were not clear enough, Trump told reporters at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club that he was “very disappointed in Mitch.”
Trump’s comments prompted a number of Republicans to speak up for McConnell, including Senate Majority Whip of Texas.
Cornyn tweeted that passing legislation required a “team effort” and that “no one is more qualified than Mitch McConnell to lead [the] Senate in that effort.” At least eight other Republican senators had expressed some form of backing for McConnell by Friday afternoon.
Republican strategists who have been skeptical of Trump were even more pointed.
Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant who worked with Sen. ’s (Fla.) campaign in last year’s Republican presidential primary, echoed Cornyn’s comments about politics being a team sport.
“No one can succeed alone,” Ayres said. “Attacking members of your own team has never been known to be an effective strategy to produce victories.”
Asked what he thought Trump’s rationale was for hitting McConnell, beyond simply expressing frustration, Ayres laughed and said, “I have no idea!”
But while Trump’s barrage has commanded the headlines, some on the right see a comment from McConnell earlier in the week as the instigating factor in the contretemps.
The Senate majority leader told a Rotary Club in his native Kentucky on Monday that Trump had held “excessive expectations” about how quickly major changes could be enacted. McConnell also noted that Trump had “not been in this line of work before.”
Those remarks outraged some on the right flank of the GOP.
Conservative strategist Keith Appell said that complaints about excessive expectations sit uneasily with the fact that Republicans had promised for years to get rid of ObamaCare.
In the weeks leading up to the 2014 midterm elections, Appell noted, Republican Senate candidates were running well over 10,000 TV ads per week against ObamaCare. (The figure is based on data from media analysis firm Kantar Media.)
“Trump is expressing the frustration that is felt at the grassroots,” Appell said. “This is exactly what people hate about Washington: the promises over and over to do something positive if you just give us your money and give us your votes and give us your volunteers. Then, when they get elected, they don’t do it.”
Some Washington observers note that there is nothing particularly unusual about tensions between presidents and congressional leaders of the same party.
In those same 2014 midterms, the chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader (D-Nev.) criticized President in stark terms. David Krone in essence blamed Obama for the Democrats losing their majority. “The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent,” Krone told The Washington Post. “What else more is there to say?”
But right now, Trump’s own inherent unpredictability perplexes both conservative and centrist Republicans alike.
They note that, right before embarking on his series of criticisms of McConnell, he endorsed Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), whom McConnell is backing in a primary against two GOP rivals cut from more Trumpian cloth: Rep. and former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.
John Feehery, a GOP consultant with a long track record on Capitol Hill, cited the endorsement in Alabama’s Senate special election as proof that Trump’s antagonism to McConnell could easily be overstated.
“Ultimately Trump is saying one thing and doing another,” said Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “He is saying that he is different from McConnell but he is doing the same thing as McConnell in Alabama.”
Iowa-based conservative radio host Steve Deace, who endorsed and campaigned with Sen. (R-Texas) in last year’s GOP presidential primary, made a similar argument from a very different standpoint.
In taking on McConnell, Deace said, “Trump from our perspective finally found the right target. But then, in true Trumpian fashion, he undercuts his own message by endorsing McConnell’s proxy in the Alabama Senate race.”
Such moves, Deace asserted, showed that Trump’s overarching focus was not really founded on principle.
“His concern is only himself and his brand,” he said.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.