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Trump barrage stuns McConnell and his allies
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not intend to pick a fight when he questioned President Trump's expectations and was surprised by the explosion it produced, according to people close to the Senate GOP leader.
McConnell and Trump spoke Wednesday about what McConnell's allies characterized as a misunderstanding, but that did little to quell the president's anger.
"We should have had healthcare approved," Trump said Friday from his New Jersey golf club. "[McConnell] should have known that he had a couple of votes that turned on him, and that should have been very easy to handle, whether it's through the fact that can take away a committee chairmanship or do whatever you have to do."
Sources close to McConnell say he is stunned by Trump's attacks, which have only increased in recent days, because they target a member of his own team.
Some in the Trump administration, however, think McConnell should have seen it coming.
A senior administration official expressed "100 percent agreement" with the president that McConnell has not done enough to advance his legislative agenda.
The source cited McConnell's failure on healthcare and the record-slow pace in confirming his nominees to key executive branch positions.
Trump and his allies recognize he was elected to the White House despite the barrage of personal attacks from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton because voters want accomplishments that will change the status quo.
The administration delegated the repeal and replacement of ObamaCare to McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and they're not getting the job done.
"People think Mitch maybe has lost a step," said the source.
While McConnell argues he worked hard and exhausted every option to pass ObamaCare repeal legislation, the source pointed out that senators just left town for a four-week break from Washington.
The complaint among Trump allies is that while McConnell vowed to "burn the midnight oil" to get things accomplished in the majority, that hasn't happened in practice, the source said.
McConnell had deftly avoided confrontations with Trump during last year's presidential campaign, but he stepped on a land mine Monday when he said Trump "had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the Democratic process."
Scott Jennings, a former senior political adviser to the Kentucky lawmaker, said McConnell was merely offering a "dispassionate, emotionless" view of "the reality of Washington, which is things happen more slowly than we would like."
"I believe politics is a team sport, and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump have largely been on the same team not only for the past few months, but dating back to Mitch McConnell's most recent reelection campaign," when Trump gave $50,000 to support McConnell's reelection, Jennings said.
But the remark clearly angered Trump. On Wednesday, he dismissed McConnell's analysis of his "excessive expectations" with a curt "I don't think so" via Twitter and took a more personal shot by voicing disbelief that the leader "couldn't get it done" after having "screamed repeal and replace for seven years."
By Thursday, Trump was suggesting to reporters that McConnell maybe should step down as Senate majority leader, his career-long dream, if he fails to deliver on tax reform and infrastructure.
Trump's broadsides at McConnell, who spent three months negotiating legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare and came one vote short of sending a bill to conference, left McConnell's allies dumbfounded.
"Trump's reaction was way disproportionate," said the source close to McConnell, who requested anonymity to discuss the spat with Trump frankly.
While McConnell's allies say Trump has reason to be frustrated over the Senate's failure to pass healthcare legislation, venting his anger on McConnell makes no sense - if for no other reason than he needs him to pass other parts of his agenda.
"It was also a strategic blunder, because no one is more important than McConnell to Trump's agenda," said the McConnell ally, who argued that Trump needs a savvy field general to get his agenda passed through the Senate, where the threshold for controversial bills is often 60 votes.
These allies note that McConnell delivered Trump's biggest win since the election by holding open the Supreme Court seat left open by the 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia through the end of former President Obama's second term. McConnell also changed the Senate rules to confirm Neil Gorsuch, a conservative, to the seat.
McConnell's camp thinks Trump blew the episode out of proportion, and some wonder if a Trump ally may have an ax to grind with the Senate leader.
"I don't know if President Trump got bad advice from somebody or if somebody's trying to portray it to him in a way that isn't real," Jennings said.
"When you're trying to vent your anger and frustration at somebody, you've got to remember who's wearing what jersey. McConnell and Trump are wearing the same jersey," he added.
In the battle between Trump and McConnell, most GOP senators are making clear their loyalties lie with the Senate leader.
As of Friday afternoon, at least 20 GOP senators had voiced support for McConnell's leadership.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, said McConnell still has his full support and that if any Republicans deserve blame for the failure of ObamaCare repeal, it's the Republicans who voted against the bill, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.
If Trump tried to drive a wedge between the leader and the rest of the Senate GOP conference, "it backfired," according to a person close to the leader.
Still, some Republicans outside the Senate say Trump's criticisms are justified.
"Maybe this will incentivize the leadership of the Senate to actually do something, because they've put zero points on the board. The only thing the Senate leadership has done is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Other than that, they have done nothing," said Brian Darling, a conservative Republican strategist and former Senate aide.
"Trump is 100 percent right to point at them and say they're not doing their job," he added. "They're not even starting debate on infrastructure and tax reform."
Conservative activists say the GOP base is furious over the failure to pass legislation repealing and replacing ObamaCare and that Trump is right to hold congressional leaders' feet to the fire.
"Trump gets it, and I don't think the majority leader does," said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation.
"People who elected Trump didn't elect somebody up there just to maintain the status quo. They wanted something done. If the Republicans don't have something to show - the base is already not happy - the base will be furious," he said.
McConnell's allies counter that the failure of the ObamaCare repeal bill happened because the votes simply weren't there. They argue that Trump made the job harder by alienating two of the three Senate Republicans who voted against the bill.
Trump during his campaign questioned whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was really a war hero because he was captured by the North Vietnamese, and he bashed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) when she voted against a procedural motion before the crucial final vote.
Trump's attacks on McConnell risk widening the divide between the GOP establishment and conservative populists ahead of next year's elections.
McConnell's critics on the right used Trump's criticism as political cover to pile on.
Fox News host Sean Hannity on Monday called McConnell "weak" and "spineless" and said he needs to retire.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, which opposed McConnell during his 2014 reelection, blasted a message to supporters on Wednesday asking them to urge GOP senators to take "immediate steps" to replace him as leader.
Conservative Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks has made "Ditch Mitch" the slogan in his bid to unseat incumbent Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.).
A second person close to McConnell waved off such criticisms as the irrelevant griping of agitators.
"Mo Brooks is set to lose next week," said the source. "Any smart campaign person will tell you that running against the Senate majority leader is the worst campaign advice you can get. It's the same old cast of fools. That's irrelevant."