Former President Donald Trump, who for months has belittled Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as “gutless” and an “old owl,” has kicked his complaints into overdrive now that the Senate’s top Republican helped pass an infrastructure bill through the chamber.
Mr. Trump tried repeatedly to win an infrastructure deal during his tenure but couldn’t build a middle ground between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Now his successor, President Biden, is salivating at the chance to sign a deal — and Mr. Trump has vowed retribution against the Republicans making that possible.
Mr. McConnell is at the top of that list.
“I have quietly said for years that Mitch McConnell is the most overrated man in politics — now I don’t have to be quiet anymore,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “He is working so hard to give Biden a victory, now they’ll go for the big one, including the biggest tax increases in the history of our Country.”
The two used to have an uneasy partnership. Mr. McConnell helped shepherd Mr. Trump‘s signature tax cut through Congress in 2017, confirm three Supreme Court justices and play defense to block bills pushed by Democrats, who controlled the House in the final two years of the Trump administration.
Things turned decidedly sour late last year after Mr. Trump lost his reelection bid and contested the results. Mr. McConnell embraced a smooth transition of power and reportedly urged Attorney General William Barr behind the scenes to speak out against Mr. Trump‘s unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
The rift grew irreparable after Republicans lost two Senate special elections in Georgia in early January, costing the party control of the Senate. Mr. Trump blamed Mr. McConnell for not agreeing to more coronavirus relief checks, which he said would have earned the Republican candidates enough votes to triumph. Most analysts, however, blamed Mr. Trump.
“The icing on the cake was Trump telling Georgians their votes don’t count, driving down GOP turnout in the runoffs, which put [Senate Democratic leader] Chuck Schumer in charge,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who has worked on Mr. McConnell’s campaigns. “Trump decided to burn down the country, the legislature and the party in a span of a few weeks, and McConnell obviously wanted no part of that.”
Mr. Jennings said it is “funny” that Mr. Trump would try to label Mr. McConnell as “overrated.”
“One of them gets up and goes to work every day after being reelected to the Senate by 20 points for the seventh time, and the other gets up and watches TV after getting beat,” he said.
The two men are the most prominent Republican leaders on the national stage, making their contentious relationship an issue for a party plotting strategy for the midterm elections next year.
Mr. Trump intends to be a kingmaker and holds sway over a good chunk of the grassroots of the party that is also intent on relitigating the presidential election.
Mr. Trump has said he doubts he could back any Republican who voted for the infrastructure package.
He has also pushed former pro football player Hershel Walker to run for the Senate on the Georgia ballot next year. Mr. McConnell is reportedly frantic over that prospect and desperate to recruit an alternative.
Mr. Trump also has endorsed a challenger to Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who voted to convict him in his second impeachment trial. He has threatened to do the same to Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who serves as Mr. McConnell’s top deputy as minority whip.
Mr. Thune voted against advancing the roads and bridges deal.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, are hoping to keep the focus on Mr. Biden’s shortcomings and their own policy vision heading into the midterm elections.
They seek to strike a balance between keeping Trump voters in the fold without marching out a slate of candidates who embrace the former president’s often abrasive and off-putting approach to politics.
Stan Barnes, an Arizona-based Republican strategist, said the party is looking for candidates who embody the “Trump policy without Trump personality.”
“The key to understanding this phenomenon is to keep in mind it is not Donald Trump that is moving the political Richter scale; it is the awakened constituency that previously supported the former president,” Mr. Barnes said.
Stylewise, Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell could not be more different.
Mr. Trump‘s penchant to broadcast most of his thoughts immediately is matched by Mr. McConnell‘s famous reticence, with a smirk and a deflection often the only answer reporters get to their questions.
Mr. Trump also blames Mr. McConnell for not echoing his complaints about the conduct and outcome of the November election. Mr. McConnell said Mr. Trump “provoked” some of the mob that took part in the Jan. 6 intrusion on the U.S. Capitol.
The two men have ended up on the same side on some key Trump-related business.
Mr. McConnell opposed Democrats’ push to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate what led to the riot, but that wasn’t enough to appease Mr. Trump. The former president started carping from the sidelines about Mr. McConnell soon afterward.
The Republican Party would “never again be respected or strong with political ‘leaders’ like Sen. Mitch McConnell at its helm,” he said.
He also has taken credit for Mr. McConnell‘s massive margin in his reelection bid last year. The senator beat his challenger 58% to 38%, while Mr. Trump‘s margin of victory in Kentucky was 62% to 36%.
Mr. McConnell poked fun at the idea that he owes his seventh term to Mr. Trump.
“I want to thank him for the 15-point margin I had in 2014 as well,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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