So now Trump is entertaining the idea of pressing for McConnell’s removal if he is unable to achieve what looks, for the moment, unachievable. What, and who, does the president imagine would come in his wake? The majority leader’s reputation has been tarnished by the health-care failure, but he remains a savvy Senate operator with an unmatched grasp of the body’s arcane procedures.
It’s hard to imagine that any other Republican would be able to do a better job of marshaling votes than McConnell has done. (His right-hand man, Whip John Cornyn, is for obvious reasons also implicated in vote-counting failures.) And that’s assuming any other senator would want to take the job, especially having seen McConnell’s failure and the bullying he’s received at the hands of the president. Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch batted away Trump’s criticism Thursday and praised McConnell. Trump can say that infrastructure is easy, but that doesn’t make it true, and tax reform is probably even harder.
That gets to the point of things: Aside from Mueller and his investigation, and Trump’s own lack of discipline, McConnell has more power than any individual over the fate of this presidency. The president can ill afford to lose him. It’s not just getting a single major legislative push through. Trump’s single greatest achievement, the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, came through the Senate. Any other appointees he wishes to have confirmed will have to come through the Senate too.
Perhaps Trump fails to understand how much his fate is intertwined with McConnell’s; he hasn’t displayed much interest in or grasp of how to work with Congress so far. Maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he’s just improvising. He did, notably, throw public support behind Senator Luther Strange, who is McConnell’s horse in a bitter special election in Alabama, this week.
While Trump has shown little sustained interest in the nitty gritty required to get things done, his political instincts and his instinct to assign blame remain sharper. By attacking McConnell, he absolves himself of blame for the failure of Obamacare repeal, and he reemphasizes his role as an outsider who doesn’t play the Washington game and who won’t tolerate the Senate’s ossified mores. McConnell is not particularly popular, and that’s especially true within Trump’s own base, which holds both McConnell’s ideological commitments and his long tenure in Washington as suspect.
Campaigning against McConnell could have its short-term benefits, then, but it’s unlikely to actually produce health-care repeal, tax reform, and an infrastructure bill any faster. It’s tough to be an outsider when you’re president of the United States, but it’s even tougher to succeed when you’re so far outside that you’re feuding with the most powerful legislator in your own party.