Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sees two versions of President Trump: a combative figure whose trigger-happy social media strategy regularly hurls him into controversy, and a Republican leader committed to spearheading a staunchly conservative agenda.
McConnell prefers to judge the second version — and does so favorably.
“I like what he’s doing more than what he’s saying frequently,” McConnell told The Washington Post in an interview Thursday. “So I kind of draw a distinction between his desire to comment on a lot of things, seemingly on a daily basis, and what we’re actually trying to accomplish here.”
McConnell offered two key examples to support his view. First, Trump nominated Circuit Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, a favorite of conservatives, to the Supreme Court. And second, even in areas where the president has veered away from conservative orthodoxy — notably in toying with the idea of lifting sanctions imposed on Russia — he has not taken any action, McConnell said.
The senator’s comments offered insights into the complicated relationship between two of the country’s most powerful leaders — and into McConnell’s particular challenge: to hold the GOP together through the tumultuous early weeks of Trump’s presidency. While Republicans control both chambers of Congress as well as the White House, they have been sidetracked from their policy goals by Trump’s all-too-regular controversies.
For McConnell, seeing Trump as a helpful partner in enacting a conservative agenda may be the only alternative. Yet it’s also an unproven position, given the enormous uncertainty that remains about how much the GOP can actually get done with Trump in charge.
As McConnell reflected on his interactions with Trump in his office suite on the second floor of the Capitol, he conceded that he has utterly failed to change Trump’s penchant for picking fights on Twitter.
“We’ve had very candid conversations about that,” McConnell said. “And as you can see, my advice has not made a bit of difference.”
Almost proving McConnell’s point, two hours after the interview, Trump held an hour-long news conference to announce his new Labor secretary nominee. He veered into a tirade against the media and other controversial statements. Because it happened while McConnell was hosting a GOP luncheon, he declined later in the day to comment on the Trump news conference.
In other ways, McConnell believes he has made an impact, notably with the Gorsuch nomination.
“It was actually my suggestion that they come up with a list and that they consult with the Federalist Society, which they did,” said McConnell, who added: “Gorsuch was on the list.”
He also argued that on the whole, Trump’s policies put him in line with GOP orthodoxy.
“I think we know enough now to know that Donald Trump is doing the same kinds of things that Jeb Bush would have done or Marco Rubio would have done or Mitt Romney would have done,” he said.
Still, many Republicans are troubled by the first month of Trump’s presidency. It’s not just his brashness or tendency to pick fights, they have said, but also the substance of some of the policies he has tried to implement. Chief among them: his immigration ban.
“I don’t think any of those people would have rolled out the immigration thing the way that it was rolled out,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking of Romney, Bush and Rubio.
McConnell declined to say whether Trump ought to try to take the legal fight over the ban to the Supreme Court or instead rework it. The ban, which was crafted without input from congressional leaders, has been halted by a federal court.
“That’s an executive branch initiative,” said McConnell, separating himself from Trump’s controversial move to temporarily bar all refugees as well as foreign nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries. “It’s entirely up to them to decide what path to take.”
There is also distance between McConnell and Trump on Russia. But the Kentucky senator noted that Trump has not actually taken action that runs contrary to Republican orthodoxy. And that allows McConnell to retain hope that Trump, in the end, will hew to mainstream GOP views.
“He hasn’t done anything,” McConnell said. “For example, he has not decided to waive any of the sanctions. And I would strongly advise him not to.”
Democrats were incredulous that McConnell would view Trump’s overtures toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggestions that NATO is obsolete as something other than policy shifts.
“Suggesting that a candidate, president-elect and president can say whatever they want and it has no consequences — that is a novel understanding of the impact of a head of state making public pronouncements,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
The resignation of Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser — after revelations that he misled administration officials about his contact with the Russian ambassador late last year — has also been an unwelcome distraction for Capitol Hill Republicans. The Senate has decided to probe the matter. McConnell declined to say whether he thinks transcripts of conversations between Flynn and the ambassador should be released.
While Trump has repeatedly said he wants to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, McConnell said he has yet to see a clear proposal from the White House about how that will happen.
McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) announced last month that they would move forward with a plan to free up money for the wall, but questions remain about whether that funding will be offset by cuts elsewhere.
While the leaders of both chambers are largely in sync on policy goals, there are stark differences in their political style. During the campaign, Ryan’s support for Trump fluctuated during various imbroglios in which Trump was caught up, while McConnell largely stayed above the fray.
McConnell, 74, spoke to The Post for more than 20 minutes Thursday, calmly answering questions and seeking to describe his deviations from the president diplomatically.
“I say it with a smile on my face: He’s a different kind of president,” McConnell said.
The rigidly disciplined Republican senator has served in the upper chamber since 1985. He became majority leader in 2015.
Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, a long-standing goal of Republicans, has sputtered in recent weeks amid disagreements and confusion about the path forward, as well as anxiety about what will happen to people currently covered under the law.
When will Republicans have a bill they can rally around?
“When we agree on what we are going to do,” McConnell said flatly. He said he expects Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to offer a “wide-ranging plan to move us to a different place.”
McConnell offered little hope that bipartisan cooperation is likely for the GOP’s major goals; he said health care and tax reform, another legislative priority, are likely to pass along sharply party-line votes.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say this is not a period steeped in bipartisanship yet,” he said.
The most immediate task ahead for Republicans is confirming Trump’s Cabinet nominees. That has proven a challenging process, with Democrats uniting against many of Trump’s selections. On Wednesday, Trump withdrew his pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, amid growing concerns among both Republicans and Democrats.
McConnell, who has frequently complained about what he calls Democratic obstruction, on Thursday called their resistance to Trump’s Cabinet picks a “futile” gesture.
McConnell was also unapologetic about a clash on the Senate floor between him and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. McConnell used a Senate rule to effectively silence Warren after she criticized Sessions, then a member of the Senate.
“It was mostly about how we’re going to act in the Senate, not about anything else,” said McConnell, seeking to play down the incident.
Gorsuch’s first confirmation hearing has been set for March 20. He was on Capitol Hill again Thursday, meeting with six Democratic senators and one Republican.
While Republicans have praised him, Democrats have been skeptical. Some say they intend to force a procedure requiring him to reach a 60-vote threshold before he can get an up-or-down vote.
“He’s obviously going to be confirmed,” McConnell said. “The way in which that occurs is not yet clear.”
Trump has pressured McConnell to “go nuclear” — meaning changing Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to win confirmation with a simple majority. But such a move for a Supreme Court nomination would be a drastic, precedent-setting maneuver at odds with McConnell’s adherence to Senate tradition.
McConnell said he and Trump talk often, by phone and in person. They had a one-on-one last week, and McConnell was headed back to the White House on Thursday afternoon for a bill-signing ceremony.
But how Trump communicates with the rest world continues to concern McConnell as he tries to pass a sweeping agenda.
“A lot of what the president is interested in talking about, particularly in the tweets, are unrelated to what we’re trying to accomplish here,” he said. “And I would rather see he and all of us stay on message as much as possible.”