Trump Takes on a Powerful Leader, but This Time It’s on Capitol Hill
Policy + Politics

Trump Takes on a Powerful Leader, but This Time It’s on Capitol Hill

Jonathan Ernst

President Trump was obviously angry. The target of his ire was a man who has been aggravating him for a long time by ignoring his demands, refusing to work through the president’s chosen intermediaries, and perhaps worst of all, making public statements that seemed to ridicule Trump’s basic competence and understanding of his job.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, the president went ballistic -- very plainly telling reporters that he was considering the nuclear option.

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Are we discussing North Korean despot Kim Jong-un and Trump’s not-so-thinly-veiled threat to rain nuclear “fire and fury” down on the hermit kingdom? No. That was Wednesday.

On Thursday it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s turn, and the president came as close as a chief executive can come to threatening nuclear-level retaliation against a Senate majority leader from his own party by refusing to rule out calling for McConnell’s resignation as leader of the upper chamber of Congress.

Tension has been building between McConnell and Trump for the past week or more. The president was plainly frustrated with the failure of the Senate to pass a bill repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and with McConnell’s refusal to take another run at passing a repeal bill that failed in the Senate by a single vote last month. McConnell hasn’t been taking Trump’s advice and has been ignoring the pleas of Trump surrogates to force another vote.

With lawmakers on August recess, Trump had been prodding McConnell on Twitter for two days, suggesting that the majority leader just isn’t working hard enough.

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The tweets followed a speech by McConnell in his home state of Kentucky, during which he said of Trump, “Our new president has not been in this line of work before, and I think had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the Democratic process.”

But the back-and-forth went to a new level on Thursday.

Taking questions from reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is taking a working vacation, the president was asked if he thought McConnell should step down from his post. Under normal circumstances, one would expect a president to slap down such a suggestion out of hand -- if anybody even bothered to ask him in the first place. When the president’s own party controls Congress, disagreements between the chief executive and the majority leader are usually kept behind closed doors.

But Trump is no normal president, and for better or worse, reporters have learned that a previously unimaginable question now sometimes gets a presidential answer.

That happened Thursday, when Trump replied to the query about a calling for McConnell to resign with, “If he doesn’t get repeal-and-replace done, and if he doesn’t get taxes done — meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn’t get a very easy one to get done — infrastructure — if he doesn’t get them done, then you can ask me that question," Trump said.

To be sure, it was a long way from actually calling for McConnell’s resignation, but it’s hard to understate how irregular it is for a president to even entertain the possibility of destabilizing his own party’s congressional leadership team.

Ironically, though, threats from the White House might actually carry more weight halfway around the globe in Pyongyang than they do two miles up Pennsylvania Avenue at the Capitol. Though Trump seems to forget it, Congress is a power unto itself in Washington, and a long-serving politician like McConnell, who is isn’t facing reelection until 2020 -- the same year as Trump -- can afford to wait out a dyspeptic president.