Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell's relationship simply can’t go on like this for Senate Republicans.
Though the Senate GOP is tantalizingly close to retaking the majority next year and largely united in opposition to President Joe Biden’s agenda, the ongoing feud between the former president and the Senate minority leader has decayed to an entirely untenable place. Trump’s insult-laden diatribe against McConnell this weekend signals that the GOP could splinter badly in primaries next year — and raises the question of whether McConnell and Trump can work together at all.
In theory, the two Republicans could be back serving together in fewer than four years. But not if Trump keeps calling McConnell a “dumb son of a bitch” and a “stone-cold loser.”
“We’ve got issues as a party, with the demographic trends going against us, and we don’t have a lot of margin for error,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), observing that the Trump-McConnell feud is still in “full flare” at the moment. “When it comes to the infighting politically, I don’t know how that can help — when you’re scrapping on the margins, when you’re trying to win states, and especially national elections.”
The feud is mostly one-sided as of late; McConnell barely utters Trump’s name these days and has no communication with the former president. Still, several high-ranking senators said on Monday evening that Trump and McConnell need to reach an understanding of some sort or perhaps even resume speaking to each other, which at the moment seems unthinkable.
“Hopefully there will be some sort of truce,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune. “It’s in everybody’s best interest — including the former president, if he wants to continue to stay viable politically — to help us win the majority in 2022. And that means working with Senate Republicans, and not against them.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the No. 5 leader, said she hoped “at some point” Trump and McConnell could even reconcile.
“We really need to come together, both Leader McConnell and President Trump,” Ernst said. “We just need to have good discourse within the Republican Party right now.”
The Kentucky Republican declined to respond to Trump’s criticisms on Monday evening, but will almost certainly be asked about them again Tuesday at his weekly news conference. And Trump upped the ante later Monday, with a statement about the Supreme Court in which he said: “With leaders like Mitch McConnell, they are helpless to fight. He didn’t fight for the Presidency, and he won’t fight for the Court.”
Trump and McConnell have feuded before, of course, mostly in 2017 during the early days of the former's presidency. Trump leaned on McConnell to kill the legislative filibuster (McConnell refused) and criticized the GOP leader for the party's failure to repeal Obamacare. The two later repaired their relationship by focusing on the federal bench and collaborating on Senate races, though their alliance evaporated after McConnell recognized Biden’s presidential win in December.
The rift has accelerated since then, fueled primarily by Trump’s lies about the election, his actions during the Jan. 6 riot and his subsequent delay in calling off his supporters after they stormed the Capitol. McConnell harshly condemned Trump this year for having “fed lies” to his voters in his efforts to overturn the election and indicated openness to convicting Trump in his impeachment trial.
Ultimately McConnell acquitted Trump while excoriating him for a “dereliction of duty” in failing to defend the Capitol. The Senate GOP leader further vowed to nominate mainstream candidates who can win general elections in key races, regardless of the former president's opinion. Notably, Trump has so far endorsed a slate of incumbent GOP senators, several of whom disagreed with his efforts to contest the election.
He has not endorsed Thune, however, and openly opposes Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) reelection. Future GOP Senate primaries in states like Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio offer more opportunities for intraparty conflict.
“The way this is going to play out is, there will be primaries. And President Trump presumably will pick his person. It could well be the same person that we would want to see nominated. But in the end, it’s about who is electable in the general election,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell ally.
Trump’s latest series of disses, including blaming McConnell for losing January's Georgia Senate runoffs and mishandling the latest series of pandemic stimulus checks, obscures what’s otherwise a united GOP at the moment. No Republicans in Congress supported Biden’s coronavirus bill earlier this year, and it appears none of them will support Biden’s still-nascent infrastructure plan.
You'd hardly be able to tell that from the impression given by Trump's slamming of McConnell. The ongoing tension risks miring their party in division, projecting the appearance of a hopeless split between McConnell’s more establishment vision and Trump’s chaotic, controversy-driven conservatism.
“This is how I look at it: They’re both big boys,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who conceded that the episode is “not helpful” to Republicans. “They’re both aiming for the same ends, which is a good result in 2022. But they’ll be able to figure it out.”
Republicans are relying on National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott to help litigate the dispute. Scott spent the weekend at the GOP donor retreat with Trump and presented him with the “NRSC Champion for Freedom Award.” The Floridian also said the McConnell-Trump rift has not yet hurt the NRSC’s fundraising.
Some Republicans are betting that opposition to Biden’s agenda will be enough to unify voters. Concerns about the icy relationship between the former president and the GOP leader, they argue, are overblown.
Scott, for one, laughed off Trump’s latest coarse attack: “I’ve had a lot of experience with Sen. McConnell. I think he’s one of the smartest SOBs I know.”
“At least we have a Mitch McConnell and we have a Donald Trump,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “The party cannot be successful without Donald Trump, and Donald Trump cannot be successful without the Republican Party.”
But Republicans can't quite grin their way through the current schism. Just this year, Trump asked donors to give to his own political group instead of GOP campaign committees. And McConnell takes intense interest in pivotal Senate races, maneuvering to anoint his preferred candidates and make strategic decisions about where to engage.
So it’s easy to see how continued discord will hinder the GOP’s efforts to take back the Senate majority next year. That’s why Republicans are ready for the Trump and Mitch Show to wrap up its latest plot line.
“We’ve got other challenges right now. Anything we can do to work together, the better off we’re going to be,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who described himself as “very disappointed” to learn of Trump’s comments about McConnell. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”