President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE (R-Ky.) sought to end months of bitter sniping over a private lunch at the White House on Monday and followed it with a display of unity at a joint press conference in the Rose Garden.
Trump insisted to reporters that he has long been friends with the GOP leader and their relationship is now closer than ever before
“The relationship is good,” he declared, contradicting various media reports of tension between the two, and proclaiming, “We’re fighting for the same thing.”
McConnell, for his part, emphasized that he speaks to the president frequently, even on weekends, contradicting the narrative that emerged over the summer that Trump and the Senate leader have become increasingly estranged.
“I want to underscore what the president said. We have the same agenda. We’ve been friends and acquaintances for a long time,” said McConnell, who praised Trump for putting a conservative stamp on the federal judiciary.
Their body language told a somewhat different story.
McConnell stood stiffly by the president for much of the press conference with his hands in his pockets, showing little emotion except for the moment he cracked a smile when Trump jabbed at Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE, his 2016 election opponent.
And while both leaders claimed to be on the same page, there were signs that gaps in communication and vision remain.
Trump told reporters that he is working on a major economic plan that he has yet to share with Senate Republicans.
“I’m going to be surprising some people with an economic development bill later on, but I haven’t even told Mitch because I want to focus on tax cuts and some other things right now,” the president said.
Trump also claimed he has the votes to repeal and replace ObamaCare next year even though GOP lawmakers still have a lot of ground to cover before reaching consensus about what to do next on health care.
“We are getting close to health care. We’ll — it’ll come up in the early to mid-part of next year. We’re going to have a vote. I think we already have the votes. We feel confident we have the votes,” Trump said.
Trump also expressed support for his former political adviser, Stephen Bannon, who is planning to support primary challengers against as many as six sitting Republican senators next year, a prospect that alarms the Senate GOP leadership and rank-and-file members.
“I have a very good relationship, as you know, with Steve Bannon. Steve’s been a friend of mine for a long time. I like Steve a lot.
“Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing,” he said.
But in an acknowledgement of McConnell’s concerns that primary battles could put the Senate GOP majority in peril, Trump said he would try to persuade Bannon to ease off on some incumbents.
“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,” Trump said.
McConnell, by contrast, tried to slam the door on Bannon’s operations as hard as possible, arguing that conservative primary challengers could wind up as weak general election candidates.
“You know, the goal here is to win elections in November,” he said.
“My goal, as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate, is to keep us in the majority. And the way you do that is not complicated. You have to nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home,” he added.
Trump and McConnell did their best to show they have each other’s backs. After the news conference was over, Trump extended an arm to McConnell to help him climb the stairs back to the Oval Office.
It will be hard for the two men to overcome perceptions that they are not the best of friends or political partners.
After ObamaCare repeal legislation failed in July, Trump all but called for McConnell’s ouster.
The New York Times reported in late August that Trump and McConnell had not spoken in weeks after the president ripped the leader on Twitter, posting: “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years couldn’t get it done[?]”
That came after the Kentucky senator groused publicly about Trump’s “excessive expectations” about passing major bills.
Trump even suggested to reporters at his golf course in New Jersey during the August recess that McConnell’s days in leadership might be numbered.
Trump has also repeatedly needled the Senate GOP leader over the filibuster, arguing the GOP should change the body’s rules to eliminate its use on legislation. McConnell has repeatedly signaled he does not want to change the rule.
Monday’s meeting came on the heels of a series of sharp exchanges last week between Trump and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.).
Corker last week pointedly criticized Trump’s judgment and competence, comparing the White House to an adult day care center and warning that Trump’s rhetoric about North Korea could put the nation on the path to “World War III.”
Trump’s relationship with Senate Republicans has been in a downward spiral since late July when three moderates, Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (Ariz.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWelcome to ground zero of climate chaos A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate Bipartisan blip: Infrastructure deal is last of its kind without systemic change MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - DC prepares for Saturday of festivals & Jan. 6 demonstration Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee MORE (Alaska), voted down a bill to repeal core elements of ObamaCare.
He lashed out not only at McCain, Collins and Murkowski but Senate Republicans as a whole.
He also took aim in August at Arizona Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE, who is one of the Senate’s two most vulnerable Republican incumbents, calling him “toxic” and encouraging his conservative primary challenger Kelli Ward after Flake disagreed with Trump’s trade and immigration policies.
Flake in an interview with The New York Times published Sunday stood by his criticisms of Trump for characterizing many Mexican immigrants as criminals and questioning President Obama’s true nationality.
“In which of those instances should I not have spoken out?” Flake asked. “At what point should you not stand up and say, ‘This is not right; this is not conservative; this is not where Republicans ought to be?’ ”
Click here for more highlights from Trump's press conference with McConnell.