Trump and McConnell: Political odd couple turned powerful partnership

Why We Wrote This

Stark differences in personality and style belie a shared focus on winning that has bolstered the president’s relationship with the Senate majority leader, now facing a critical test in the impeachment trial.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
President Donald Trump listens to a question from reporters next to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as he arrives for a closed Senate Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 26, 2019.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

When Donald Trump became president, he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were wary of one another. To some in the Trump camp, it doesn’t get any “swampier” than Mr. McConnell – now finishing his sixth term in the Senate. 

But over time they've developed a mutual respect. Through experience – passage of major tax reform and the confirmation of a record number of federal judges, including two Supreme Court justices – President Trump has learned that Mr. McConnell’s advice is worth listening to. Both men are all about winning, whether in elections or on legislation and confirmations or, now, in ensuring that Mr. Trump survives an election-year impeachment trial with party unity intact. 

This hard-fought alliance now faces a major test in the Senate trial, which began in earnest Tuesday. Namely, will Mr. Trump continue to defer to Mr. McConnell, or will he muddy the messaging at this high-stakes juncture in his presidency? 

“The president, I think, sees Mitch as a Class A operator,” says Chris Ruddy, CEO of the conservative Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Mr. Trump, in an email. “He’s also a pretty frank guy, and I know the president appreciates that candidness.”

They are perhaps the ultimate Washington odd couple. 

One is a charismatic showman who operates on gut and instinct. The other is low on charisma and shrewdly calculating. One is a political outsider who has remade the Republican Party in his own populist image. The other embodies the GOP establishment.

Yet despite some high-profile clashes – punctuated by angry tweets – President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have made their relationship work. Foremost, they’re both all about winning, whether in elections or on legislation and confirmations or, now, in ensuring that President Trump survives an election-year impeachment trial with party unity intact. 

Through experience – passage of major tax reform and the confirmation of a record number of federal judges, including two Supreme Court justices – Mr. Trump has learned that Mr. McConnell’s advice is worth listening to. 

“The president, I think, sees Mitch as a Class A operator, a master of the Senate, who has helped him tremendously to move his legislative agenda through,” says Chris Ruddy, CEO of the conservative Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Mr. Trump, in an email. “He’s also a pretty frank guy, and I know the president appreciates that candidness.”

Mr. Ruddy acknowledges that when Mr. Trump became president, the two men were “somewhat wary of each other.” But over time they’ve developed a mutual respect. “They both like winners and put a value on getting things done,” he says. 

This hard-fought alliance now faces a major test in the Senate trial, which began in earnest Tuesday. Namely, will Mr. Trump continue to defer to Mr. McConnell, or will he muddy the messaging at this high-stakes juncture in his presidency? 

Since his Dec. 18 impeachment on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Mr. Trump has sent mixed signals on what he wants – from “outright dismissal” of the articles of impeachment to the calling of Democratic witnesses, including former Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. 

Mr. McConnell has said that an effort to dismiss the case would fall short, to the president’s embarrassment. Furthermore, for Mr. Trump, being acquitted after a trial sends a stronger reelection message than a dismissal, presidential allies argue.

Mr. McConnell and Mr. Trump’s lawyers oppose the calling of witnesses; Democrats want to call four, including former national security adviser John Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and question them about Mr. Trump’s alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine to help in his reelection effort. 

For now, the McConnell game plan, in conjunction with the Trump lawyers, is in effect. But with the mercurial Mr. Trump, one can never be sure what he might say or do.

Indeed, for all their shared goals, the two men can seem at times from different planets. The key to making any joint Trump-McConnell venture work, say sources connected to each, is to acknowledge those differing styles and take advantage of the best of each.

“McConnell’s not a golfer, McConnell’s not a backslapper,” says Scott Jennings, a former campaign aide to Mr. McConnell from Kentucky. “Think of them as a corporation. Someone’s got to work in sales and marketing and someone’s got to work in product engineering.”

At the same time, Mr. Trump’s alliance with Mr. McConnell reflects a pragmatic streak in the president, a willingness to compromise on his stated goal of “draining the swamp” – that is, changing the way Washington works. Because to some in the Trump camp, it doesn’t get any swampier than Mr. McConnell – now finishing his sixth term in the Senate and expected to win his seventh in November. Former aides to Mr. McConnell are all over Washington, working as lobbyists and consultants. 

Ken Cuccinelli, a Trump acolyte and top official at the Department of Homeland Security, once called Mr. McConnell the “head alligator” in the swamp. 

That type of rhetoric may have resonated with Mr. Trump when he first arrived in Washington. Certainly, the early going between the two was rough. In July 2017, when the Senate failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Trump was furious – spurring a month of severely strained relations, punctuated by angry presidential tweets slamming Mr. McConnell by name. A phone call between the two men reportedly descended into a profanity-laced shouting match, followed by weeks of no contact. 

Mr. McConnell faced other sources of frustration that summer, including Mr. Trump’s controversial reaction to protests by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the president’s open antagonism toward some of Mr. McConnell’s GOP Senate colleagues.

Complicating matters was the position of Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, as transportation secretary. When asked that summer about the tensions between her husband and Mr. Trump, she said, “I stand by my man – both of them.” 

By the end of the summer, the two men had patched things over. Populist bomb-thrower Steve Bannon, a major McConnell antagonist, was out as Mr. Trump’s chief White House strategist, and tax reform was on its way to passage. The president’s mood was brightening. 

On the effort to repeal “Obamacare,” “McConnell got it as close as he could, but the votes weren’t there,” Mr. Jennings says. “From that day forward, they’ve been hand in glove on just about everything.”

Last year, Mr. McConnell even gave himself a nickname – the “Grim Reaper” – as he promised to defeat all progressive proposals in the Senate. 

At this point, “McConnell is probably one of his best advisers, and Trump probably realizes that,” says Al Cross, a former longtime Louisville reporter, now at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. 

For Mr. Trump, having an ally who doesn’t compete for the spotlight is a plus. Mr. McConnell is famously taciturn, and keeps his own counsel.

“McConnell keeps things close to the vest, even with his own leadership team. He doesn’t make decisions on the fly,” says Jim Manley, who ran communications for former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. “In meetings between Reid and McConnell, neither of whom are known for eloquence, Reid was always the more loquacious of the two.”

Also working in Mr. McConnell’s favor may be the fact that he isn’t quite the “institutionalist” that some make him out to be. 

He resisted Mr. Trump’s entreaties to get rid of the legislative filibuster, so he could pass bills with a 51-vote majority in the Senate and not 60 votes. But when it came to another Senate tradition, filling a Supreme Court vacancy expeditiously, Mr. McConnell was willing to break the mold. He refused to hold a hearing or a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee – Merrick Garland, named in March 2016 – saying the next president should fill the vacancy. 

The gambit paid off after Mr. Trump won the election, allowing him to name a conservative to the high court. In all, Mr. McConnell has overseen the confirmation of 187 federal judges, ensuring a conservative judicial legacy that will last decades. Of all the impacts from the Trump-McConnell partnership, that may be the biggest of all. 

To see all of The Monitor's impeachment coverage, go here.

 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.