President Trump met with Senate Majority Leader McConnell today. Then, they held a lengthy joint press conference. The transcript is here.
White House officials described the lunch as focused mainly on efforts to cut taxes. Reportedly, Trump and McConnell also discussed Steve Bannon’s threat to back insurgent candidates in an effort to defeat numerous GOP Senators in primaries. It’s likely that convincing Trump not to support this effort was the primary purpose of the lunch from McConnell’s perspective.
McConnell’s talking points were well-calculated to appeal to Trump. According to Politico’s sources, the Majority Leader noted that Bannon appears to be targeting Senators who fully support the president’s agenda — e.g., Deb Fischer and John Barrasso.
It’s a concern that likely resonates with the president. Trump loves loyalty.
McConnell also reminded Trump about past insurgent primary winners who went on to lose in the general election. As McConnell later said during the joint press conference:
Look, you know, the goal here is to win elections in November. Back in 2010 and 2012, we nominated several candidates — Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They’re not in the Senate. And the reason for that was that they were not able to appeal to a broader electorate in the general election.
My goal as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is to keep us in the majority. The way you do that is not complicated. You have to have nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home. We changed the business model in 2014; we nominated people who could win everywhere. We took the majority in the Senate. We had one skirmish in 2016; we kept the majority in the Senate.
It’s a concern that likely resonates with the president. Trump loves winning.
Trump’s remarks during the joint press conference suggest that McConnell made progress with the president. Of Bannon’s insurgency, Trump said:
Well, I have a very good relationship, as you know, with Steve Bannon. Steve has been a friend of mine for a long time. I like Steve a lot. Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing.
Some of the people that he may be looking at [to “primary”], I’m going to see if we talk him out of that, because, frankly, they’re great people.
Judging from his tweets, the main source of Trump’s frustration with McConnell and the GOP Senate is probably the failure to get the votes needed to pass even “skinny” Obamacare repeal and replace legislation. But that failure stemmed from the votes of just three Senators. Two of them, Sens. Collins and Murkowski, are the least conservative GOP members. The third, Sen. McCain, loves to be a maverick and hates Trump.
The Obamacare vote provides no reason why Trump (as opposed to Bannon) should want to see Sens. Fischer and Barrasso, for example, defeated. Nor, to my knowledge, does any other Senate vote.
Trump finds himself in the middle of war between populists and traditional conservative Republicans. He would like, I believe, to mediate that conflict.
The notion of Trump as mediator seems implausible at one level, given his personality and given that he sparked the war. On the other hand, it’s natural that the president, as leader of the coalition that elected him, would like to keep the coalition more or less together.
In any case, Trump is the only figure I know of who, at this time, can bridge the gap. Today, he worked the McConnell side of the fence. In his tweets and at his rallies, he works the populist side. His policy decisions so far tend to split the difference.
I wish him good luck.
NOTE: I have modified this post slightly since it first went up.