WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump can’t enact his agenda without Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell may not have a majority to lead without Trump’s help. It’s simple, and still so complicated.
The strangest bedfellows in Washington are locked in an increasingly public and personal feud that defies conventional wisdom. The escalating tension between the two men is threatening the GOP’s re-election prospects and its ability to govern. It has erupted at a high-stakes moment for the Republican Party, which is facing the prospect of a government shutdown — and the possibility it may fail to enact any major legislation during its first year in complete control of Washington.
The dispute is a reminder of the unconventional politics that have gripped the GOP in the Trump era. While Trump and McConnell ostensibly share the same philosophy, legislative agenda, voters and political opponents, they increasingly act more like adversaries than allies — a reminder of just how divisive the president remains within his own party.
“He’s now actively attacking people who can help his agenda,” veteran Republican operative Doug Heye said of Trump, who has mobilized his avid supporters against GOP senators since the party’s embarrassing failure to overhaul the nation’s health care system. “It seems to be really a one-man spiral to the bottom.”
Divisions have deepened in recent weeks.
McConnell, like other leading Republicans, is particularly upset by Trump’s persistent attacks against vulnerable Republican senators who need his help, according to a person familiar with the Kentucky Republican’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. The person said McConnell questions whether Trump is capable of righting his struggling presidency.
The concerns were exacerbated by Trump’s recent description of some participants in a white supremacist rally as “very fine people,” remarks that were broadly condemned by Republicans and Democrats.
The intra-party feuding threatens nearly all of Trump’s priorities, including his near-daily campaign trail pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
While Trump threatened Tuesday to force a federal shutdown unless Congress provides funds for the massive project, many GOP lawmakers, especially moderates, lack his passion for the proposal. They may be harder to win over given the current rancorous atmosphere.
Republicans who feel wounded by Trump also could be less likely to defend him amid investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia. And it could complicate the task of rallying Republicans around complicated tax legislation, where lawmakers can have divergent priorities.
“In politics, it’s a mistake to personalize things, particularly if it’s a member of your own team,” veteran Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Wednesday. “The reality is you’re going to need them down the road.”
Trump and McConnell “remain united on many shared priorities” and they and other top officials will hold “previously scheduled meetings” after Congress returns from its August recess, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday in a statement. She said their goals include middle-class tax cuts, building the border wall and strengthening the military.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we are committed to advancing our shared agenda together and anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation,” McConnell said in his own statement.
Such talks are unlikely to yield a close personal relationship between the two leaders.
At 75 years old, McConnell is just four years older than Trump. But he’s spent decades in Washington compared with Trump’s seven months. And stylistically and substantively, they are worlds apart.
McConnell, a Kentuckian, is guarded and gentlemanly, while Trump flashes a New Yorker’s brash, bombastic impertinence.
McConnell is an unrelenting GOP loyalist who’s mastered Senate rules and the legislative process, while Trump regularly bashes Republicans and has limited knowledge of congressional procedure. McConnell often seems to think several steps ahead of others, while Trump bounces from one subject to another with little clear strategic purpose.
The most perplexing of Trump’s strategies has been the attacks on sitting Republican senators when his party holds control of the Senate by a narrow margin. Without his support, the GOP stands a chance — if somewhat unlikely — of losing its Senate majority.
Last week, Trump encouraged a former Arizona state senator to challenge Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in a Republican primary election. Meanwhile, a super PAC allied with Trump launched attack ads against Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who is facing a primary challenge.
On Tuesday, Trump said his coy refusal to mention Flake’s name at an Arizona rally showed “very presidential” restraint. He abandoned the restraint by Wednesday morning, tweeting that he’s “not a fan of” Flake, whom he called “weak on crime & border.”
Publicly and privately, Republicans tasked with preserving the GOP’s House and Senate majorities next year are outraged.
Some party officials, Heye said, are asking themselves a difficult question: “Is it the Republican president or the Republican Senate I want to protect and work for?”
The divisions are “unprecedented,” said Republican pollster Chris Wilson.
Wilson said he thought the party could survive Trump’s political struggles and weak polling numbers in 2018, in part because so few races are being fought in competitive terrain. Democrats seeking the House majority have limited opportunities to pick up new seats given the way many congressional districts have been redrawn by Republican-led state legislatures. And Republicans expect gains among 10 states carried by Trump where Democrats currently serve.
But Wilson noted the division between Trump and his party is so clear, many voters don’t necessarily link the two.
“He does his own job of separating himself from the Republican brand,” Wilson said.
But it would be “catastrophic,” he said, if Trump and the Republican-led Congress fail to enact meaningful legislation now that they have total control of Washington.