That’s true. But there are a few reasons why this feud is important.
1. Trump has a big, specific demand: Republicans should keep pushing to repeal Obamacare.
Senate Republicans have essentially declared that because they can’t agree on a plan to repeal Obamacare; they are moving on to other issues. Trump doesn’t like that. “Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure bill on my desk for my signing,” the president tweeted on Thursday.
What if Trump’s demand works? It would be a huge political and policy story if Republicans restarted the Obamacare repeal push. The GOP’s various health care proposals were extremely unpopular with the public — returning to that debate would have political consequences. And whether it succeeds or fails, it would likely have ripple effects for the rest of Trump’s term, affecting other priorities like tax cuts and undoing regulations, as well as the 2018 midterm elections.
Of course, I don’t think Senate Republicans are coming back to Obamacare again anytime soon. But even if Trump’s demand is ignored, it does put him in a position to blame them for failing to accomplish a major party goal. Speaking of which …
2. Trump may have decided to take on Republicans in Congress …
In a surprise to almost no one, new chief of staff John Kelly has not stopped Trump from sending controversial tweets. But the White House staff changes may still have mattered. In his recent staff shake-up, the president brought in Kelly and sent away then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-press secretary Sean Spicer. Priebus and Spicer were close to Republicans on Capitol Hill, and I’m pretty sure that they would have advised Trump not to attack those Republicans, particularly McConnell.
Trump campaigned as a political outsider, but while in office, he had allied himself with Congressional Republicans. What if he has decided to change course, work with Democrats on some issues or simply work mostly through executive actions? Trump may be unpopular, but Republicans in Congress are way, way more unpopular. Taking on McConnell might make it harder for Trump to get the legislation he wants to his desk. It could even imperil his presidency at some point. But politically, he may have picked the right opponents.
3. Or, at least brush them back a bit.
Republicans in the Senate have been increasingly willing to confront Trump, despite him being the president of their own party. They have pushed forward a bill to tie his hands on Russia policy, questioned his legislative strategy and blasted him for suggesting that he would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Some of the GOP senators who have worked to constrain Trump have argued that they are defending government norms from a president who either doesn’t understand those norms or doesn’t care to uphold them.
McConnell is usually not the person directly attacking the president, but he hasn’t done much to stop many of his 51 colleagues from doing so either. And McConnell has hinted, at times, that Trump doesn’t understand Washington or governing. McConnell’s comments on Monday — “Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before,” and “I think he [Trump] had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process” — were interpreted as a dig at the president, and I’m not surprised that they annoyed Trump.
There is a big underlying question here: To what extent will the Republican Senate, with Trump as president, act as a check on the White House; work as his governing partner but not necessarily follow his every edict; or largely do Trump’s bidding? The answer to that question has shifted over Trump’s first several months, and recently, Senate Republicans have seemed a lot less eager to just go along. Trump could be trying to make them think twice about abandoning him.
4. McConnell vs. Trump is a version of the broader debate over power in the Republican Party.
Of the 52 GOP senators, at least 12 publicly distanced themselves from Trump before Election Day. But all 52 senators unanimously backed McConnell for majority leader. Make no mistake about this: McConnell is going to stay majority leader in the Senate, no matter what Trump thinks. In fact, Trump’s attacks on him may have only increased his support among Republican senators.
“I look forward to @SenateMajLdr’s leadership as we work to reduce Americans’ taxes,” U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada wrote in a Twitter message on Thursday. (In case you don’t speak Washington code, Heller was suggesting that the Senate move on to tax policy, as McConnell has suggested, not stay on healthcare as Trump wants.)
In contrast, Fox News’ Sean Hannity attacked McConnell on his program Wednesday night.
The Republicans may control the House, Senate and White House. But the divide between the establishment and anti-establishment wings of the party that has been evident ever since the tea party came onto the scene wasn’t resolved by Trump’s victory. Trump, even as the president, is the leader of the insurgent wing, and McConnell is one of the leaders of the establishment.
Trump was elected president, and you and I were not — so it’s not wise to assume he’s simply bumbling through. That said, it’s hard to view Trump’s attacks on McConnell as smart strategy.
As my colleague, Nate Silver, suggested this week, beyond special counsel Robert Mueller, McConnell (and House Speaker Paul Ryan) may have more power than anyone else to turn the Russia controversy into the end of Trump’s presidency. McConnell and Ryan can create special committees to investigate Trump (or not) and encourage the existing investigations (or not). Ultimately — though we’re likely a long way from this — if either called for Trump’s resignation, it would be a huge problem for the president.
In addition, almost everything Trump wants to do as president — judicial and cabinet nominations, tax cuts, infrastructure, etc. — must go through McConnell. Trump may think bashing McConnell publicly will get the majority leader in line. And the president may be right. But I doubt it.