NEW: President Donald Trump criticized Mitch McConnell on Twitter on Thursday
Trump has spent August openly attacking Republican senators
Congressional leaders have several time-sensitive agenda items for this fall
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered mostly praise for President Donald Trump’s administration in a speech at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual ham breakfast Thursday morning – as the President continued slamming the Kentucky Republican on Twitter before and after his speech.
“The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed!That should NEVER have happened!” Trump tweeted after McConnell’s speech ended.
In brief remarks to his constituents, the closest McConnell got to criticizing Trump was saying he was “a little concerned about some of the trade rhetoric,” an apparent reference to Trump’s pledge to re-negotiate trade deal and his decision to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Otherwise, McConnell praised Trump for supporting rolling back Obama-era regulations and picking Neil Gorsuch as the most recent Supreme Court justice.
The message from McConnell was clear Thursday morning: when it comes to reports of tensions between he and Trump, there’s nothing to see here. McConnell, who tends to avoid public confrontations and isn’t known to add fuel to public spats, appeared focused solely on the Republican agenda. Congress returns next month facing must-pass bills to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.
There is good reason for that, attacking the President could backfire for McConnell who needs Trump to sign a slew of must-pass bills to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling in upcoming months.
Going after Trump could also have potentially devastating electoral consequences for McConnell. Trump remains extremely popular with his base, the same voters McConnell will need to turn out in the mid terms if he wants to keep his Senate majority.
But the positive feelings appear to not be mutual. Mere minutes before McConnell was expected to speak, the President tweeted a message criticizing congressional Republican leadership, citing both the Kentucky Republican and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“I requested that Mitch M & Paul R tie the Debt Ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill (which just passed) for easy approval,” Trump said in a series of two consecutive tweets. “They … didn’t do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy-now a mess!”
A Senate GOP leadership aide, speaking on background, said the idea of tying the debt ceiling increase to a popular veterans affairs reform bill was publicly known before the August recess but the members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and other “debt ceiling purists” – who would not support an increase unless it included other provisions to curb government debt – rejected the idea because they didn’t want to have to vote against the VA bill.
They “hated” the idea, the aide said. This aide did not know where the idea originated to tie the bills together.
After a failed vote to repeal Obamacare last month, the Trump-McConnell relationship has become sour, according to CNN reports. The two men haven’t spoken since an August 9 phone call, which CNN reported earlier this week devolved into a shouting match.
McConnell opened his remarks with a joke he has made before about how being Senate majority leader is similar to being a “groundskeeper at a cemetery.”
“Everybody’s under you, but nobody’s listening,” he said, adding, “That’s what you get with 52 to 48,” a reference to the breakdown of members in the chamber, Republican to Democratic, respectively.
McConnell also pledged to get tax reform done this Congress, a key issue Republican leaders are talking about this month but one goal that looks increasingly ambitious as more time-sensitive issues appear to be taking up the GOP agenda this fall.
“I think we’ll be able to produce a much better tax code,” McConnell said. “It will be done during this Congress.”
While staff has been in communication, the White House told CNN Wednesday that there are no current plans for McConnell and Trump to speak again until September when Congress returns from recess and they can talk in person.
What happened to Trump and McConnell?
A key moment in their public feud came earlier this month when McConnell told an audience in Kentucky that Trump had “excessive expectations” when it came to legislating, a statement that drove Trump to publicly attack McConnell’s leadership and Senate rules on Twitter.
Over the last several months, Trump has also threatened McConnell’s rank-and-file members, putting individual members’ re-elections and McConnell’s majority at risk. In a speech in Phoenix Tuesday night, Trump – without mentioning names – continued his tough talk as he lashed out at incumbents Sen. John McCain (who voted against the health care bill) and Sen. Jeff Flake, who has a long history of tangling with Trump during the campaign.
But the strain in the relationship between McConnell and Trump comes at a time when Congress and the White House have a long list of items that must be accomplished in relatively short order.
In the fall, McConnell and Trump have to agree to raise the debt ceiling, pass a budget and fund the government, an item that seems especially in jeopardy after Trump suggested Tuesday night that he would be willing to risk a shutdown if he didn’t get funding to build his long-promised border wall.
Republican Rep. Thomas Massie told CNN at Thursday’s event that in a lot of ways McConnell had been superior to Ryan on health care even though the House passed a bill and the Senate did not, praising McConnell for at least bringing up for a vote the 2015 bill on a straight repeal of Obamacare.
“There were a lot of differences that were papered over after the election not just between McConnell and Trump, but Paul Ryan and Trump and now I think some of those are coming to the surface,” Massie said. “But, we’ll work through this.”
McConnell’s tried to downplay the drama. In a statement Wednesday, McConnell said “the President and I, and our teams, have been and continue to be in regular contact about our shared goals.”
“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. The White House issued a similar public statement later Wednesday.
This story has been updated and will continue to update with news.
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.