The Memo: Trump allies say he needs a GOP scalp

Republicans on Capitol Hill lament President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE'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 McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) as well as GOP Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (Ariz.), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Sasse: RNC help for Roy Moore 'doesn't make any sense' Sasse calls RNC decision to resume support for Moore 'bad' and 'sad' MORE (Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerFormer Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report McConnell 'almost certain' GOP will pass tax reform Former New Mexico gov: Trump's foreign policy is getting 'criticized by everybody' 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 CollinsOvernight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Study: ObamaCare bills backed by Collins would lower premiums Right scrambles GOP budget strategy MORE (R-Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling 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 RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade 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 GrahamGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration We are running out of time to protect Dreamers US trade deficit rises on record imports from China 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 Trump 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.