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How attacking GOP leaders could be hurting Trump’s agenda

August 24, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
President Trump lambasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday, his latest attack aimed at his own political party. John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff discusses the growing rift with Michael Steel, former press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner, and Brian McGuire, former chief of staff for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the Trump White House and the Republican-controlled Congress look forward to an ambitious agenda for September, tensions between the president and congressional leaders are spilling out in an unusual public display.

John Yang starts as off.


MALE: Leader McConnell, leader of the U.S. Senate.


JOHN YANG: At a breakfast with Kentucky farmers this morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was upbeat.

SEN. MITCH MCCONELL, R-Ky., Majority Leader: This new administration and this Congress is interested in getting America growing again.

JOHN YANG: But he was taking friendly fire from President Trump, who slammed McConnell’s and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s strategy on raising the nation’s debt ceiling: Could have been so easy. Now a mess.

And Mr. Trump hit McConnell on a major irritant: The Senate failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. That should never have happened.

That late-night Senate vote appears to have triggered the intraparty feud.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Repeal and replace of Obamacare should have taken place, and it should have been on my desk virtually the first week that I was there, or even the first day that I was there. I’ve been hearing about if for seven years.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Our new president has, of course, not been in this line of work before, and I think had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen.

JOHN YANG: The New York Times reported the president’s public criticism of McConnell escalated to the point that Mr. Trump berated him in a phone call that quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.

Today, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to play down the friction.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, White House Press Secretary: I think the relationships are fine. Certainly, there are going to be some policy differences. But there are a lot of shared goals and that’s what we’re focused on.

JOHN YANG: Meeting with Boeing workers in Everett, Washington, Ryan also emphasized common ground with the president. But he seemed to have trouble answering a question about their relationship.

FEMALE: Are you confident you that you can influence the president?

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: It’s a day-by-day deal. I’m kind of choking. First, you control your own actions and you lead by example.

JOHN YANG: With big fiscal deadlines looming and the White House and Congress still hoping for their first big legislative win, Mr. Trump said McConnell could still get in his good graces.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If he gets these bills passed, I’ll be very happy with him. I’ll be the first to admit it.

JOHN YANG: But passing those bills could be complicated by the public sniping.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We explore that infighting in the GOP now with two people who know Congress well. Michael Steel, he was press secretary for former House Speaker John Boehner. He’s now a political consultant. And Brian McGuire, he served as chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from 2014 to May of this year. He is now a lobbyist.

And welcome to both of you. We appreciate your coming.

Michael Steel, how serious do you think this split is between the president and Republican leaders in Congress?

MICHAEL STEEL, Former Press Secretary for House Speaker John Boehner: Well, I think you have the look at it differently than almost anything we’ve seen in American history. President Trump is unique. He’s the first American president who nerve served in elected office or in high military office. And so, we shouldn’t expect his relations with congressional leaders to be the norm.

That having been said, these attacks, this tension is stupid. It is counterproductive. It doesn’t help get big things done for the American people.

So, at this point, I know congressional leaders are continuing to work, to do the hard work on things like tax reform and infrastructure to get those things done. The president right now simply isn’t helping.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brian McGuire, how serious, how real is this split, do you think?

BRIAN MCGUIRE, Former Chief of Staff for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: I think Michael is right. It is counterproductive and self-defeating. But I think that it’s also not ultimately going to define these relationships. I think both Republicans in the House and Senate and in the White House, including the president, have a lot of shared goals, and that they’re going to come together ultimately to achieve them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much — how serious do you think the president is about these criticisms? Do you think he’s doing this because he believes — because he’s angry about what happened? Or is there something else going on here?

BRIAN MCGUIRE: It’s hard to say why he tweets what he tweets. Nobody knows but him. But I do think ultimately that he is a constructive partner on the issues that he and congressional Republicans agree on.

And I expect when everybody gets back into town that they’re all going to be locking arms and trying to focus. I thought it was encouraging at the end of the day today that the White House issued a statement saying that they were going to be focused next week on tax reform pretty exclusively and pretty vigorously. So, I expect that that’s what they’re going to do and I think that that’s a good sign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Steel, you’re both saying that this is counterproductive, but is it justified? I mean, is the president right to criticize Leader McConnell to, criticize the speaker and other Republicans?

MICHAEL STEEL: There are always tensions between a president and congressional leaders, even if they’re of the same political party. I think that people in the House and the White House are frustrated that the Senate was unable to complete the repeal and replace of Obamacare.

At the same time, we need to be focused on the future, not the past. Leaders have to be focused on what comes next. What needs to come next is actual accomplishments like tax reform, like infrastructure, and, let’s not forget, raising the debt limit and keeping government open.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But my question, is and I’ll turn to you, Brian, for this — I mean, is the president — I mean, is he justified in criticizing Leader McConnell, who you worked for for a long time?

BRIAN MCGUIRE: I understand that the president is anxious to get his agenda through. But Republicans in Congress are no less anxious to get it through. There are a lot of arguments as to why things have passed and have not passed, but the important thing, as Michael said, is to continue to look forward and to focus on the things that they can do together.

And, clearly, tax reform is one of those things. It’s something that not only unites Republicans in Washington. It’s something that the public supports overwhelmingly, and it’s something, frankly, that Democrats could potentially support. So, that’s something that I think the president should focus on and be very constructive for him to do so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do Republicans in Congress, Michael Steel, have something to fear from this president? I mean, we’ve seen him. He went after Dean Heller, the senator of Nevada. He’s been very critical of Jeff Flake and of John McCain.

MICHAEL STEEL: Well, I think that, one, it would be much more helpful if the president were to train his fire on Senate Democrats, the people who, for example, the 10 or so Senate Democrats who face — who have to be elected in states that he won in 2016.

To the extent that he’s attacking Republicans, there isn’t a lot of indication that it’s going to be terribly effective. His endorsements haven’t worked out very well in the past, and particularly in the Senate. The House is a different creature because every member of the House Republican conference will face both a primary and general election opponent next year. Senators with their longer terms and greater public profiles in their state are relatively immune to that kind of attack.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean? I mean, how do you see that?

BRIAN MCGUIRE: Yes, the Senate, the terms are six years. So, an attack now doesn’t have the staying power that it would for somebody who is always in cycle. Senators who won last year, for instance, aren’t too worried about hits they might be taking right new because they’ve got a long runway between now and their next reelection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But politically, for example, Jeff Flake is up in Arizona next year. Do the president’s constant criticisms of him after he, in fairness, has been candidly critical at times — he votes with the president, but he’s been critical of the president at times. Does it hurt Jeff Flake or the president —

BRIAN MCGUIRE: I think that the only thing that truly hurts both the president and Senator Flake is being unable to point to something that they’ve achieve legislatively, which is why I think the president would be much — well-advised to start focusing on the legislative agenda rather than on which members he may not like on any given day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Steel, how well do you think this president understands the legislative process? And does it really matter where the president does or not?

MICHAEL STEEL: I think that the president and the people around him, the president has people around him who have an intimate understanding of the legislative process. The vice president was a House member, very experienced, very talented.

We don’t need the president to engage on a granular level in these policy disagreements. But we need him to use the bully pulpit to make the case for important policy priorities. Look at what Speaker Ryan is doing over the month of August. He’s having events all the across the country talking about the benefits of tax reform for middle-class families, higher wages, more jobs.

President Trump is promising to get involved in that fight starting next week — but let’s remember, leading up to the vote on healthcare in the Senate, his primary focus was denigrating his own attorney general. That doesn’t help get results.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you — at this point I know both of you still talk to folks you know very, very well on the Hill. Is it their sense that the president’s going to continue as he is now, or is it just every day is a jump ball?

BRIAN MCGUIRE: I think it’s everybody’s expectation that whenever everybody gets back into town at the end of the month, that there will be a lot of common cause, and that people will work on the important things that they have to focus on. And staffs have been working on those things all throughout the summer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of this — and in connection with that, we talked about whether the president can hurt a senator or House member politically — how much of this helps the president politically in that he can be seen as running against a Congress that he can argue isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing?

BRIAN MCGUIRE: It’s hard to see how this could help the president, frankly. The only thing that, again, I think the president has to fear is nothing to show for his time in office. And the people that he needs to help him enact his agenda are in some cases the very people he’s attacking.

So I think it would be much better for him and for Republicans in Congress if they focused on their common agenda and I think that’s what they’re going to do when everybody gets back into town.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a quick comment, any way you see the president benefits from this?

MICHAEL STEEL: No, of course not. This does nothing but further inflame the 25 percent to 35 percent of the country that’s with him already. It doesn’t help with moderates. It doesn’t help with Democrats. It doesn’t help with many Republicans.

It’s not a helpful strategy. I hope he’ll knock it of.

At the same time, I think congressional leaders are intent on getting things done whether or not he does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Steel, Brian McGuire, we thank you both.

BRIAN MCGUIRE: Thanks for having us.

MICHAEL STEEL: Good to be with you.