I n the spring of 2016, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, were both backstage at a National Rifle Association conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The two men are political opposites. McConnell is a poor orator but a gifted Senate tactician. He plays the long game. Trump is a great showman but barely knows the basics of the constitutional system. He improvises. In Louisville, McConnell noticed that Trump, who was by then the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, was holding pages of prepared remarks in his hand. “I see you have a script,” McConnell said, according to a former adviser who heard the story from the Majority Leader. “Put me in the category of supporting that.”
“I hate it,” Trump said.
“But this is what you should be doing,” McConnell told him.
Until this week, the relationship between Trump and McConnell was one of the less fraught ones among senior Republicans in Washington. Unlike Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, who held out from endorsing Trump for months last year and who has occasionally spoken out—gingerly—against Trump’s worst excesses, McConnell has always viewed Trump with a calculating eye. He had two priorities in 2016: to hold the Republican majority in the Senate, and to help elect a Republican President who would get to name a Supreme Court justice for the seat that he had refused to allow President Obama to fill. No matter how deep Trump’s flaws, McConnell believed that antagonizing him would hurt those twin goals. He supported Trump when he won the Republican nomination, and he has rarely criticized him in public since.
“McConnell was extremely pragmatic about the relationship,” the former McConnell adviser told me. “He never said anything if it wasn’t in the interest of him, or his party’s interest, to say it. He didn’t want to create any intra-party feud that could hurt his members.”
Last year, McConnell cared less about anti-Trump conservatives than he did about Republicans such as Roy Blunt, the Missouri senator who was facing a tough reëlection fight in a state where Trump was extremely popular. “It wouldn’t have helped Blunt if McConnell was out there trashing Trump,” the former adviser said—McConnell saved any rebukes for personal conversations with Trump. “That’s the way the relationship looked up until this week.”
What happened this week is that when Trump wasn’t busy threatening North Korea, he was busy threatening McConnell. The attacks were provoked by a speech McConnell delivered on Monday in Kentucky, in which he said, “Our new President, of course, has not been in this line of work before. I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.” On Wednesday, Trump responded. “Senator Mitch McConnell said I had ‘excessive expectations,’ but I don’t think so,” he tweeted. “After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?”
Trump woke up on Thursday with McConnell still on his mind. “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done,” Trump tweeted, a few minutes before 7 a.m.“Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!” Later in the day, he tweeted a slightly more encouraging note: “Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure Bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!”
Also on Thursday, reporters asked Trump if he wanted McConnell to step down as Majority Leader. His answer was coy. “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.
Disagreements between a Senate Majority Leader and a President of the same party are not a Trump-era innovation. They have a long history. “They used to say that the best situation was to be the Majority Leader with a President from the other party,” Donald Ritchie, a former historian of the United States Senate, told me. “Majority Leaders are expected to go to bat for the President even when it’s not in the best interest of their party.”
Ritchie pointed to the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a fellow-Democrat. “He was criticized as not being strong enough at getting Kennedy’s program through,” Ritchie said. Nixon, too, had trouble with a member of his own party: High Scott. “Scott eventually supported impeachment and conviction of Nixon,” Ritchie said. More recently, George W. Bush pushed for Trent Lott to resign as Majority Leader after Lott said that the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond, who ran for President as a segregationist, had won the election of 1948.
Still, Republicans in Washington were distraught at Trump’s attacks on McConnell this week. When political heavyweights get into a public fight, their aides generally try to play down the rift when talking to reporters. But people close to McConnell whom I talked to didn’t play anything down. “I think this is a different moment,” the former McConnell adviser said. “I’m not saying it’s going to define the relationship or persist, but it is different and it should be acknowledged as such. McConnell is not a shrinking violet. He very jealously guards the prerogatives of the Senate.”
Scott Jennings, a former senior adviser to McConnell, noted that Trump this week wasn’t talking about the three Republicans senators—Lisa Murkowski, John McCain, and Susan Collins—whose votes doomed the Party’s latest effort to repeal Obamacare. “Two of them were personally insulted by the President,” Jennings said, referring to McCain and Murkowski, whom Trump has attacked in the past. “And the other one is far more liberal than the rest of the conference.” Jennings added, “Is Mitch McConnell to blame for the personal relationships of Donald Trump and Murkowski and McCain? I don’t think so.”
Jennings, like many of McConnell’s supporters, was mystified by Trump’s lack of gratitude toward the senator, for his support during the campaign and for the Supreme Court seat that he delivered. “Their relationship is rooted in one thing,” he said. “McConnell kept open the Scalia seat, which likely delivered the Presidency to Donald Trump.” Putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, Jennings said, “is Trump’s only legislative achievement.” He added, “While a lot of Republicans were having mood swings about Trump during the campaign, McConnell stayed the course.”
Some Republican senators have also come to McConnell’s defense. McConnell “has been the best leader we’ve had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges,” Orrin Hatch, of Utah, tweeted on Thursday. “I fully support him.”
Could Trump’s attacks on McConnell mark some kind of a turning point? Sometimes, a dispute between a President and a Majority Leader can rock a Presidency. In 1944, President Roosevelt, a New Yorker with a sense of showmanship, and Majority Leader Alben Barkley, a Kentuckian who was often criticized for not standing up to F.D.R., clashed over a tax bill passed by Congress and vetoed by the President. In his veto message—Twitter had not yet come along—Roosevelt said that the bill was “not for the needy, but for the greedy.” Barkley considered this such a personal affront that he immediately resigned as Majority Leader. The Senate rose up against F.D.R., overriding his veto and reinstalling Barkley. One senator, Elbert Thomas, of Utah, remarked that before the incident, Barkley “spoke to us for the President,” but since then, “he speaks for us, to the President.”
In 2007, McConnell himself told this history in a speech on the Senate floor. “The Majority Leader and the President mended the breach soon after, and continued to work together,” McConnell, who has long had a picture of Barkley hanging above his desk in his Capitol office, said. “But you could say their relationship was never again the same.”