- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2017

President Trump endorsed an intraparty revolt Monday aimed at ousting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but hours later stood beside the Kentucky Republican in the Rose Garden and said their relationship was “outstanding.”

The abrupt turnaround was dizzying, even by Mr. Trump’s standards.

The president started the day by blasting Senate Republicans for “not getting the job done” and voicing approval of Steve Bannon’s campaign to unseat establishment Republican lawmakers and force out Mr. McConnell.

“He’s a friend of mine, and he’s very committed to getting things passed,” the president said of Mr. Bannon, the Breitbart news executive who served as Mr. Trump’s chief White House political strategist.

“I can understand where Steve Bannon is coming from,” he said, adding that he and “a lot of people” are unhappy that the Trump agenda has run aground in the Senate.

Where Mr. Bannon is coming from is “declaring war” on the Republican establishment and putting Mr. McConnell in conservatives’ crosshairs.

“Right now, it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment,” Mr. Bannon said in a speech at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell have had a strained relationship for months, mostly over the slow pace of the Senate and the majority leader’s failure to pass a bill to repeal Obamacare.

Now it’s up to Mr. McConnell to get a package of tax cuts and tax reforms across the finish line in the narrowly divided Senate.

After a lunch meeting at the White House, Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell presented themselves as best friends and close allies when addressing the news media in the Rose Garden.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Mr. Trump said, Mr. McConnell close by his side. “My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding.”

Mr. McConnell agreed.

“We have the same agenda,” said the Senate majority leader, noting the tax reform plan. “We are together totally on this agenda to move America forward.”

Still, the fate of tax reform remains in doubt. Several Republican senators have reservations, and Democrats are loath to hand Mr. Trump any victories — even if it means denying tax cuts to American workers.

Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell both crowed about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

“The single most significant thing this president has done to change America is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court,” said Mr. McConnell.

Mr. McConnell is largely responsible for Justice Gorsuch.

When the Supreme Court seat opened last year, Mr. McConnell refused to give a floor vote to President Obama’s pick — leaving the post for the next president to fill. Then, after Mr. Trump’s surprise victory, Mr. McConnell followed Democrats’ lead and triggered the so-called nuclear option to alter filibuster rules for the Supreme Court, allowing Republicans to install Justice Gorsuch by majority vote.

Mr. Trump fielded questions on a wide range of topics in the Rose Garden.

He responded to criticism for a nearly two-week delay sending consolation letters to the families of four Green Berets killed in an Oct. 1 raid in Niger. He said he personally penned the letters and that he planned to call after allowing “a little time to pass.”

The president said negotiations with Democrats to replace Obamacare were underway after he forced the issue last week by ending federal subsidy payments to insurance companies.

“Obamacare is a wreck. It’s a mess. It’s destroying lives,” he said. “I want to get health care that’s much more affordable and much better health care. And that’s what we’re doing.”

On tax reform, which topped the agenda for the lunch meeting, Mr. Trump for the first time said it might not get done this year.

“Don’t forget, it took years for the Reagan administration to get taxes done. I’ve been here for nine months — a little more than nine months,” the president said.

Mr. Trump also backed off his support of Mr. Bannon’s push for his brand of conservative candidates to defeat incumbent Republicans in primary elections next year.

He said he would try to call off Mr. Bannon from some races.

“Some of the people that he may be looking at, I’m going to see if we talk him out of that because, frankly, they’re great people,” said the president, although he added that “Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing.”

Mr. Trump said Mr. McConnell would vouch for his “fantastic relationship” with senators.

He then blamed Democrats for the difficulty in advancing major legislation in the Senate, where Republicans hold 52 of 100 seats.

“The Republican Party is very, very unified,” Mr. Trump said. “We have no Democrat support. They’re obstructionists.”

Mr. McConnell warned that the Bannon strategy of running conservative renegades in general election contests would risk losing the Republican majority in the Senate.

“My goal as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is to keep us in the majority. And the way you do that is not complicated,” he said. “You have to nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home.”

Mr. Bannon’s campaign against the establishment has garnered significant support among Republican voters.

Mr. Bannon scored a major victory in the election of former Judge Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election for U.S. Senate. Mr. Moore beat incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, who was endorsed by Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell.

Mr. Moore was backed by Mr. Bannon and other conservative rabble-rousers, including former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Mr. McConnell and his Republican allies funneled millions of dollars into Alabama to help Mr. Strange, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions became attorney general.

The conservative advocacy group ForAmerica bristled at Mr. McConnell’s appearance with the president.

“Mitch McConnell is good at two things: making excuses and going on recess. He callously deflected blame onto his colleagues for his own laziness, lack of leadership and lack of results,” said ForAmerica President David Bozell.

Although his group rails against the Republican establishment, it is considered part of the conservative movement’s establishment.

“‘Winners make policy; losers go home’ may make for a juicy sound bite, but Americans know that McConnell hasn’t made any policy since winning the majority,” Mr. Bozell said. “Republican donors and activists alike have lost patience with his empty promises and meaningless rhetoric. Ditching Mitch is gaining steam, hence the need for the acting job McConnell put on display today.”

Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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