The Memo: Trump allies say he needs a GOP scalp

Republicans on Capitol Hill lament President Trump's aggressive behavior toward them, but some people in the president's orbit are urging him to up the ante even further. 

They say that, far from making nice, Trump needs to instill fear so that lawmakers do not feel at liberty to thwart him.

“Most members of Congress are arrogant, and until a scalp is actually taken they are going to continue to be defiant,” longtime Trump friend Roger Stone told The Hill. “All he needs to do is punish one incumbent and I think you’d see a sea-change.”

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Advice like Stone’s feeds the president's instincts to hit back hard against those whom he believes have wronged him: a list that at present appears to include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes 0B defense bill Overnight Health Care: New GOP ObamaCare repeal bill gains momentum Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Ky.) as well as GOP Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate's defense authorization would set cyber doctrine Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE (Ariz.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCorker pressed as reelection challenges mount -trillion debt puts US fiscal house on very shaky ground Senate votes down Paul's bid to revoke war authorizations MORE (Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Corker pressed as reelection challenges mount MORE (Tenn.).

Trump’s biggest defeat to date, on his attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act, came at the hands of McCain and Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Ryan: Graham-Cassidy 'best, last chance' to repeal ObamaCare Collins skeptical of new ObamaCare repeal effort MORE (R-Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Collins skeptical of new ObamaCare repeal effort How Senate relationships could decide ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Alaska.), who joined Democrats to sink a Senate bill.

Other Trump loyalists join Stone in arguing that the president should neither forgive nor forget.

“He is 100 percent correct to go after McCain, Flake, Murkowksi,” said Sam Nunberg, who worked as an aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign. 

Nunberg also expressed the hope that Trump would be able to engineer the defeat of Collins in a GOP primary if she sought to become Maine’s governor.

But Nunberg drew a distinction between those senators who have been critical of Trump and the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill.

“I do think it is counterproductive for him to have a strained relationship with Leader McConnell,” Nunberg said, citing both the danger to Trump’s legislative agenda and the widespread support McConnell enjoys among his colleagues.

Steve Bannon, recently ousted as Trump’s chief strategist, does not appear to be in a compromising mood, however. He promised to keep up his own attacks on McConnell in an interview published by The Economist on Friday. 

“I’m going to light him up,” Bannon said.

Trump himself seems in no particular mood to declare a truce.

“The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed! That should NEVER have happened!” the president wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

A New York Times story the previous day had reported that Trump and McConnell had not spoken to each other “in weeks” and that McConnell had “privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.”

On Friday, Trump complained about the Senate’s filibuster rule, which has been a longtime vexation to him even as McConnell has indicated he has no interest in getting rid of it. And the president took aim at Corker, who had publicly called his “stability” and “competence” into question. 

“Strange statement by Bob Corker considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in ‘18. Tennessee not happy!” Trump tweeted on Friday morning.

The strategic wisdom of those moves is lampooned by moderate Republicans. They note that Trump has achieved nothing of real legislative consequence so far in his presidency, and suggest that his fractious personality costs him goodwill on Capitol Hill.

“He doesn’t make it any easier to support him,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant and pollster who worked for the 2016 GOP primary campaign of Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Trump bets base will stick with him on immigration MORE (R-Fla.).

Trump’s willingness to hit back against those who don’t follow his wishes may be an integral part of his personality, however. Longtime Trump-watchers say the same impulse was evident in his years as a real estate developer, reality TV star and fixture of the New York tabloids.

“He drives everything from the point of trying to always appear to be the winner — and not brooking dissent from anyone,” said Timothy O’Brien, the author of a biography of Trump and the executive editor of Bloomberg View. “He personally is always prioritizing conflict and bravado so he stays center-stage and is perceived as the winner.”

O’Brien asserted that any advisors fueling that tendency and encouraging him to “slap” at McConnell on a regular basis were politically “daft.”

There are even some internal party critics of Trump’s, however, who don’t dismiss his words out of hand.

Appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s syndicated radio show on Thursday, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTop Louisiana health official rips Cassidy over ObamaCare repeal bill Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE (R-S.C.) said of Trump, “He’s running against Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and others. The Congress is very unpopular, particularly with the Republican base, so there’s nothing unhinged about it. It’s a political strategy that I’m not so sure is smart, but it’s a very thought-out strategy. There’s nothing crazy about it.”

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, last month found only 30 percent of Republicans approving of McConnell’s job performance, while 46 percent disapproved. For Trump, 81 percent of Republicans approved and only 16 percent disapproved.

In five major polls this month — from Gallup, CNN, CBS News, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University — overall public approval of Congress never exceeded 20 percent. Even Trump, whose poll ratings are historically low, scores roughly twice as well as that in most surveys.

The Harvard-Harris poll published by The Hill this week found McConnell to be the most unpopular politician in the country with a national profile.

Stone argued that Trump is “far more popular and more influential with Republican primary voters than any members of Congress and any member of the United States Senate, and he has enormous leverage to go into party primaries.”

The strategist lamented Trump’s decision to endorse incumbent Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) in the special election in that state. Strange is also strongly backed by McConnell. 

But late Friday afternoon, The Washington Post reported that while Trump was not pulling back on his endorsement of Strange, he might back off in his support.

Earlier on Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about Trump’s criticism of GOP senators at the daily media briefing. 

“I think it’s clear that the endgame is for Congress to do its job and actually pass legislation. I think the American people are very frustrated with Congress’s lack of action,” she said. “For years, they've been all talk and no action.”

If those sentiments might be met with consternation on Capitol Hill, they are firmly endorsed by some among the conservative grassroots.

“Really, the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate needs to get behind President Trump and his agenda,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. “I think it is fair for him to shed light on what is really happening on Capitol Hill.

“The voters voted for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE to be a sledgehammer and a wrecking ball to Washington, D.C.,” she added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.