McConnell pushes back against reports of discontent with Trump


WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday sought to dispel reports of a deteriorating relationship with President Donald Trump, insisting they remain in “regular contact” over shared Republican Party goals.

That the GOP leader issued a statement was uncharacteristic. The quiet Kentuckian rarely responds publicly to beltway banter, especially stories about political intrigue and intraparty fighting.

But a report in The New York Times, which said the two men had not spoken since Trump berated McConnell in a phone call earlier this month following the collapse of the health care bill, provoked a response. The report also said Trump complained that the leader was not doing enough to shield the president from the Russia investigation. The call, made from the president’s golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., reportedly devolved into a profane shouting match.

“The president and I, and our teams, have been and continue to be in regular contact about our shared goals,” McConnell said in the statement.

“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.”

While the two men may be patching up differences, it is clear that Republicans in Congress are no longer looking to Trump for leadership to advance their legislative agenda.

Lawmakers have come to see Trump as unwilling, or unable, to commandeer the traditional presidential role of party leader, failing to utilize the bully pulpit of the White House to power public support around the Republican agenda.

At Trump’s rally Tuesday night in Phoenix, he barely mentioned a top priority on the congressional to-do list — tax reform — at the end of a rambling, combative speech that mostly aired old grievances against the media and even Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Instead, Trump promised to go to the mat for federal funding for his own campaign promise, the Southern border wall with Mexico, even threatening a government shutdown for money he previously said would come from Mexico. It is not a priority widely shared by members of his own party in Congress.

Republicans, who have the majority in Congress, desperately want Trump to help shape their legislative initiatives and bring his hard-core supporters behind their goals.

But they have resigned to the new political reality that Congress must take the lead for an isolated president.

Lawmakers are typically wary of criticizing Trump given his willingness to turn on those in his own party, but many have become more emboldened. They had almost no choice but to speak out after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., when Trump said both the supremacists and those protesting them were equally to blame for the violence. For the first time, some were willing to create distance from Trump.

McConnell’s office did not respond to a request to clarify when the leader and president last spoke directly.

Sensing the fallout, the White House also pushed back, dismissing reports of the disintegrating relationship, according to talking points being circulated.

“We’re not going to get into the president’s private conversations,” said a statement from the White House. “He looks forward to signing legislation that reforms our tax code, invests in rebuilding our military and constructs a border wall, all goals Senate Republicans share.”

By Lisa Mascaro

Tribune Washington Bureau