Trust between President Trump and Republican leaders is at an all-time low.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are in disbelief about how bad things have gotten, and they say they can’t recall seeing a worse relationship between a president and congressional leaders of the same party.
Trump’s surprise deal with Democrats on Wednesday on the debt ceiling blindsided Republican lawmakers and appeared to be an intentional effort to undermine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump seeking challenger to McConnell as Senate GOP leader: report Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' Buckle up for more Trump, courtesy of the Democratic Party MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.).
“It is at a low. The deal to push the debt limit to December isn’t that big a deal, but the undercutting appears to be a jab,” said a Republican senator, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation from Trump on Twitter.
Some of Trump’s closest advisers are making no secret of the president’s frustration with Ryan and McConnell.
“Is he annoyed at Republican leadership? Yeah, I think he probably is. And believe me, as a Republican, so am I. As a citizen, I am, too,” Trump’s budget director, former Rep. Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE (R-S.C.), said on Fox Business.
“I was promised that they would have repealed and replaced ObamaCare by now,” he said.
Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances 20 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 MORE (R-Ariz.), who faced Trump’s wrath after he voted against a bill to repeal parts of ObamaCare, said he couldn’t remember a president ever showing such a level of disrespect to leaders of his own party.
“All the news reports show that this is a very unusual time and situation,” McCain said, referring to press accounts of the meeting where Trump sided with Democrats.
McCain also couldn’t remember a president attacking a Senate majority leader of the same party like Trump did over the August recess, when he repeatedly slammed McConnell on Twitter for failing to pass legislation to repeal or replace ObamaCare.
Trump even left dangling the possibility in one conversation with reporters that McConnell might not keep his job as majority leader for long if he couldn’t get some big legislative accomplishments to his desk.
“I haven’t seen anything like it before,” McCain said.
Across the Capitol, another veteran lawmaker, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), said Trump’s inconsistency and unpredictability have made it nearly impossible for GOP leaders to project unity.
“There’s very little consistency. This makes it difficult for the leadership,” Jones told The Hill. “I have been here for over 22 years and have never seen a seven months like these past seven months regarding the uncertainty out of the White House.
“On Monday, he feels this way on the issue. On Tuesday, he feels a different way.”
Trump stunned McConnell and Ryan at a White House meeting Wednesday by overruling Ryan, McConnell and his own Treasury secretary by agreeing to a short-term budget deal with Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (N.Y.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who were in the room.
Hours earlier, Ryan had dismissed the Democratic proposal to extend the debt ceiling for only three months as “ridiculous” and “unworkable.”
“It was a little bit of a surprise to everybody,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Democrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill MORE (Texas), McConnell’s top deputy.
When asked about his colleagues’ views that the relationship between the president and GOP leaders is at an all-time low, Cornyn replied, “I think you have some unique personalities involved.”
“We’re working our way through it,” he said.
A senior GOP leadership aide said McConnell wouldn’t let any friction with Trump get in the way of his agenda.
“For McConnell, personal relationships don’t affect his desire to get things done. He doesn’t need hugs or [to] go out for cocktails,” the source said. “That may be important for other people, but not McConnell.”
At a press conference Wednesday, McConnell tried to explain Trump’s action.
“His feeling was that we needed to come together, to not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis,” he said.
Ryan, too, tried to downplay any divisions with the White House, saying he still believed Trump is a trustworthy negotiating partner who is looking out for the GOP’s interests. Trump will host Ryan for dinner at the White House on Thursday evening, a meeting that had been planned over the August recess, aides said.
“Isn’t it a good thing that congressional leaders talk? That’s probably a pretty good thing,” Ryan said of the debt debate that unfolded in the Oval Office meeting.
The ease with which Trump cut GOP leaders out of the loop to strike a deal with Democrats sent a wave of alarm through Republican conferences on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t think it’s the president going rogue, but I think the president needs to be a little more explicit, giving [Republicans] a warning of the direction he’s going,” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) told The Hill. “I hope in the future, he’ll at least step to the side of the room with leadership and say, ‘This is what I’m thinking.’ ”
Trump’s unilateral actions have raised concerns about whether Republicans can trust the president in future high-stakes talks. Already there are signs that Trump may pursue a side deal with Democrats on immigration.
Schumer announced on the Senate floor Thursday morning that Trump called him and asked how he could help advance legislation that would protect from deportation an estimated 800,000 immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.
Schumer urged Trump to put pressure on McConnell and Ryan to bring the DREAM Act, which would create a path to legal status for these immigrants, to the floor.
“He said he wanted to help in the DREAM Act, and there are many ways to help,” Schumer said.
That put GOP leaders on the defensive.
“The minority leader doesn’t set the Senate schedule and the DREAM Act — we’re not going to vote on the DREAM Act as a stand-alone [bill],” Cornyn told reporters.
When asked if Trump is a good negotiating partner for Republicans on Capitol Hill, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchCongress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears The national action imperative to achieve 30 by 30 MORE quipped, “How could we have a better one?”
“He’s an art-of-the-deal guy,” the Utah Republican added, referring to the title of one of Trump’s books. “Actually, I don’t know why he did that.”
Hatch said he hopes Trump will be a reliable future negotiator but added he thinks "it would be better to have us there,” referring to fellow GOP leaders.
A former White House official said Trump "hit the easy button" in striking a deal with Schumer and Pelosi, rather than leaders from his own party.
"He didn't want to have this be the fight. I don't think he truly trusts anyone, but I also don't think this was an attempt to stick it to Republican leadership," the official said.
Trump's primary motivation, the official said, was to "clear the deck" to work on other priorities like tax reform and immigration.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump and Schumer also made a gentlemen’s agreement to do away with the debt ceiling, a tool that Republicans historically have used as leverage to win spending reforms.
But Ryan quickly rejected the idea of eliminating the debt ceiling on Thursday morning.
GOP aides say Trump has forced Ryan to choose between loyalty to the president and the wishes of his 240-member conference.
Former Trump campaign staffer Sam Nunberg acknowledged the president's strained relationship with GOP leaders, but said it was "boneheaded" for him to deal with Democrats.
But Nunberg faulted Ryan and McConnell for not offering up a compelling fiscal package for Trump.
"While he remains extremely frustrated with Republican leadership, the leadership can complain all they want but they offered him nothing except for a long-term extension," Nunberg said.
Jordan Fabian contributed.