The Trump White House is gearing up to lay blame for a series of likely failures this week squarely at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), according to sources in and outside of the administration.
On Tuesday, Republican primary voters in Alabama are poised to reject Trump and McConnell’s preferred pick for the seat, Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL). The next day, a Republican-authored last-ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare is almost certain to go down to defeat after , if it comes to a vote at all. On Monday night, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) became the third Republican senator to announce her opposition.
The dual setbacks could have profound ramifications throughout the party, forcing it to reckon with a Republican electorate deeply upset with its inability to move an agenda and its own inability to get that agenda moved. The rush to assign responsibility for that failure is taking place before it even occurs.
One senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast that the president is “well prepared to” shovel blame onto McConnell if and when the latest Obamacare repeal effort goes down in flames later this week. Another Trump confidant noted that the president regularly vents about “Mitch’s” seeming inability to get “anything over the finish line.”
A White House official joked that it has proven a winning “formula” for Trump to go after the unpopularity of top GOP brass, including McConnell, ever since the campaign. Trump even spent the last few days hammering home the point that Strange (who is locked in an election fight against former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore) isn’t even all that close to McConnell politically or personally, and that Strange would be “fighting Mitch” in the Senate as an authentic conservative.
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss strategy.
Tensions between the president and Senate Republicans—McConnell in particular—have been building for months. Last month, Trump reportedly berated McConnell during a phone call for refusing to “protect” the president from federal and congressional investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. According to The New York Times, the call “quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.”
Furthermore, Trump has tweeted angrily about McConnell many times, including about how he has “failed” as a Republican leader. “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done,” @realDonaldTrump posted last month.
But this week could bring those tensions to full-scale boil. Not only is the president looking to pre-ascribe blame to the Majority Leader, but allies outside the administration are planning to turn the upcoming congressional elections into a referendum on McConnell’s leadership.
“If he can't get the job done he needs to go,” Fox News host and informal Trump adviser Sean Hannity told The Daily Beast. Hannity has made no secret of his disappointment with McConnell in the past, having accused him of “not leading” and suggesting recently that it might be time for McConnell to “call it a career."
Pro-Trump media is already planning to amplify these points should Obamacare repeal fail again and Strange end up falling short. A source close to Steve Bannon, the former top White House adviser who now runs the Trump-boosting, Moore-supporting Breitbart News, said the goal would be to make support for McConnell’s continued role as leader a component of future intraparty fights.
“This is the kind of thing that could take off a debate in the Republican primaries in 2018,” said the source.
In declining to comment, Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, noted that neither the Alabama primary nor the vote on the health care bill authored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) had yet to occur. But he did take a shot at the Senator’s critics in the White House for not putting their names on their takes. “All anonymous sources, right?” Stewart asked, adding: “#brave.”
A source close to McConnell, meanwhile, argued that if blame is to be cast it should be on the White House political shop for not working in advance to avoid a primary fight in Alabama. Far from helping Trump pass his agenda, the source added, a Moore win would imperil it.
“The only two things that I heard [Moore] talk about from a policy perspective is his opposition to Graham-Cassidy and his opposition to his budget that doesn’t balance, which doesn’t lend itself to tax reform,” said the source. “And unless I missed something, those are the two things on Trump's agenda.”
In the Senate, few if any Republicans were willing to blame their leader for the two impending defeats. Asked how much responsibility McConnell would bear if health care fails and Moore were to win, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) held up fingers to make a “zero” sign.
“He can’t control the Alabama race,” Hatch explained. “And everybody knows [Graham-Cassidy] is going to fail. You don’t have one Democrat vote for it, so it’s going to fail.”
But while McConnell may have been unable to turn the tides on health care or a primary, what remains undeniably true is that in the modern Republican Party, he is more unpopular than Trump. Operatives in Alabama have said that the Majority Leader’s meddling in the race hurt Strange more than it helped, making it easier to blame him for a likely loss.
“Watch how Strange and Moore do in Mo Brooks’s district,” advised Alabama conservative commentator and former GOP congressional candidate Quin Hillyer. “If Roy Moore does really well up there, that’ll tell you just how badly Mitch McConnell’s folks hurt Luther…by literally running an ad saying Mo Brooks was an apologist for ISIS.”
Though groups like the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-linked super PAC, provided extensive air cover for Strange, they may eventually prove a political liability, Hillyer and others predicted. Being Washington’s chosen candidate doesn’t sit well with Republican voters. And though Trump is now Washington, his followers are more plentiful and forgiving than McConnell’s.
“Remember, there is always a different loyalty to a president than to a party. I think Trump is out there seen as fighting for us and pushing. He has distinguished himself from the legislative body,” former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), an ally and ex-surrogate of Trump’s, told The Daily Beast on Monday afternoon. “We used to laugh at the base voters of Clinton because he was a guy all over the place. But what we found out is that to the base, if they think their president is trying, he won’t take much blame over all.”
With reporting by Andrew Desiderio