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McConnell-Trump feud raises question of whether presidency can be salvaged

By Alexander Burns
and Jonathan Martin

WASHINGTON – The relationship between President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.

What was once an uneasy governing alliance has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility, complicated by the position of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, in Trump’s Cabinet, according to more than a dozen people briefed on their imperiled partnership.

Angry phone calls and private bad-mouthing have devolved into open conflict, with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him, and McConnell mobilizing to their defense.

The rupture between Trump and McConnell comes at a highly perilous moment for Republicans, who face a number of urgent deadlines when they return to Washington next month. Congress must approve new spending measures and raise the statutory limit on government borrowing within weeks of reconvening, and Republicans are hoping to push through an elaborate rewrite of the federal tax code. There is scant room for legislative error on any front.

A protracted government shutdown or a default on sovereign debt could be disastrous – for the economy and for the party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Yet Trump and McConnell are locked in a political cold war. Neither man would comment for this article. Donald R. Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, noted that the senator and the president had “shared goals,” and pointed to “tax reform, infrastructure, funding the government, not defaulting on the debt, passing the defense authorization bill.”

Still, the back and forth has been dramatic.

In a series of tweets this month, Trump criticized McConnell publicly, then berated him in a phone call that quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.

During the call, which Trump initiated Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

McConnell has fumed over Trump’s regular threats against fellow Republicans and criticism of Senate rules, and, in a public speech, questioned Trump’s understanding of the presidency. McConnell has made sharper comments in private, describing Trump as entirely unwilling to learn the basics of governing.

In offhand remarks, McConnell has expressed a sense of bewilderment about where Trump’s presidency may be headed, and has mused about whether Trump will be in a position to lead the Republican Party into next year’s midterm elections and beyond, according to people who have spoken to him directly.

While maintaining a pose of public reserve, McConnell expressed horror to advisers last week after Trump’s comments equating white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., with protesters who rallied against them. Trump’s most explosive remarks came at a news conference in Manhattan, where he stood beside Chao. (Chao, deflecting a question about the tensions between her husband and the president she serves, told reporters, “I stand by my man – both of them.”)

McConnell signaled to business leaders that he was deeply uncomfortable with Trump’s comments: Several who resigned advisory roles in the Trump administration contacted McConnell’s office after the fact, and were told that McConnell fully understood their choices, three people briefed on the conversations said.

Trump has also continued to badger and threaten McConnell’s Senate colleagues, including Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., whose Republican primary challenger was praised by Trump on Twitter last week: “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., who has found himself in Trump’s sights many times, alluded to the NATO alliance’s mutual defense doctrine in saying, “When it comes to the Senate, there’s an Article 5 understanding: An attack against one is an attack against all.”

The fury among Senate Republicans toward Trump has been building since last month, even before he lashed out at McConnell. Some of them blame the president for not being able to rally the party around any version of legislation to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, accusing him of not knowing even the basics about the policy. Senate Republicans also say strong-arm tactics from the White House backfired, making it harder to cobble together votes and have left bad feelings in the caucus.

When Trump addressed a jamboree of the Boy Scouts last month in West Virginia, White House aides told Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from the state whose support was in doubt, that she could only accompany him on Air Force One if she committed to voting for the GOP health care bill. She declined the invitation, noting that she could not commit to voting for a measure she had not seen, according to Republican briefed on the conversation.

Sen. Lisa A. Murkowski, R-Alaska, told colleagues that when Trump’s secretary of the interior threatened to pull back federal funding for her state, she felt boxed in and unable to vote for the health care bill.

In a show of solidarity, albeit one planned well before Trump took aim at Flake, McConnell will host a $1,000-per-person dinner Friday in Kentucky for the Arizona senator, as well as for Sen. Dean A. Heller of Nevada, who is also facing a Trump-inspired primary race next year, and Sen. Debra S. Fischer of Nebraska. Flake is expected to attend the event.

Former New Hampshire Sen. Judd A. Gregg, a Republican who is close to McConnell, said frustration with Trump was boiling over in the chamber. Gregg blamed the president for undermining congressional leaders and said the House and Senate would have to govern on their own if Trump “can’t participate constructively.”

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