Trump distances himself from GOP lawmakers to avoid blame if agenda stalls – Washington Post

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President Trump is strategically separating himself from Republicans in Congress, an extraordinary move to deflect blame if the GOP agenda continues to flounder.

Trump deepened the fissures in the party on Thursday when he accused the top two leaders on Capitol Hill of mismanaging a looming showdown over the nation’s borrowing authority. Republican lawmakers and aides responded to the president’s hostility with broadsides and warnings of their own.

Frustrated by months of relative inaction at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and emboldened by his urge to disrupt the status quo, Trump is testing whether his own political following will prove more potent and loyal than that of his party and its leaders in both houses of Congress.

The growing divide comes at an inopportune moment for Washington, however. In addition to having to raise the debt ceiling to avoid a fiscal crisis, Republicans face September deadlines to pass a spending bill to avert a government shutdown, as well as pressure to fulfill a key Trump campaign promise to rewrite the nation’s tax laws.

Behind the scenes, some Republican staff members described a more functional relationship between aides and lawmakers on Capitol Hill and White House officials. But in public, Trump is waging war against lawmakers. With a pair of morning tweets, he said he asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to include a debt-ceiling increase in a recent veterans bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks during the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s Country Ham Breakfast on Thursday. (Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press)

“I requested that Mitch M & Paul R tie the Debt Ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill (which just passed) for easy approval,” he wrote. “They . . . didn’t do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy — now a mess!”

In a later tweet, the president slammed McConnell for not being able to pass a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. “That should NEVER have happened!” he wrote.

Trump is railing against Republicans because he thinks it will help him politically down the road, for instance during a 2020 reelection bid, said one outside adviser to the White House.

If Republicans lose the House in the 2018 midterm elections, as several White House advisers have warned the president, Trump can say, “See, I told you these guys wouldn’t get anything done. I’ve been saying this for months. They’re not following my agenda,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

Roger Stone, an ally of and former political adviser to Trump, put it this way: “The Trump brand and the Republican brand are two different things. What happened the last time the establishment tried to face him down? They got crushed.”

If Republicans lose the House, however, Trump could face greater peril than a difficult 2020 election: a Democratic majority eager to pursue impeachment and with subpoena power to conduct investigations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Trump’s relationship is fraying amid Trump’s repeated public attacks and controversial statements. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

For many GOP lawmakers, the justification for not fully breaking from Trump has been the promise of trying to salvage key parts of the party’s agenda. But now, they are increasingly resigning themselves to the reality that they will be largely on their own. One Senate GOP aide likened it to “being handed the keys to the car.”

As a result, they have grown increasingly hostile toward the president.

“It doesn’t help at this point, with a September coming up that is very consequential, to be throwing rocks at one another,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). He added: “You don’t, I think, do a lot of good by torching your teammates, particularly by name, individually.”

Said the Senate GOP aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid: “The sense you get is ‘We’re going to have to figure this out.’ We’re just going to assume we’re not going to get any help from the White House.”

Some White House aides have shown little sympathy toward GOP lawmakers who have made harsh remarks about Trump. Asked Thursday to respond to recent comments by Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) doubting the president’s competence and stability to lead, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, “I think that’s a ridiculous and outrageous claim and doesn’t dignify a response from this podium.”

The relationship between Trump and McConnell, meanwhile, has become increasingly acerbic in recent weeks, in private and public. But as details have surfaced in news reports, McConnell has tried to project unity even as some Republicans have said tensions are still raw.

In remarks Thursday morning at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s annual Country Ham Breakfast, McConnell praised the president and his administration for making strides on regulatory reform, the Supreme Court and looking out for rural Americans.

But he acknowledged differences on trade, saying he was “a little concerned” about some of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric. He also cracked a joke that underscored the challenges he faces with a narrow majority in the Senate.

“I’m often asked, ‘What is being the majority leader of the Senate like?’ ” he said. “The best answer I’ve been able to think of is, ‘It’s a little bit like being a groundskeeper at a cemetery. Everybody’s under you, but nobody’s listening. That’s what you get with 52-48.’ ”

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