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What the Bannon vs. McConnell fight means for Trump and the GOP

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR join Judy Woodruff to discuss Steve Bannon’s attacks on the GOP establishment, as well as the responses from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump, plus a controversy over the lawmaker nominated to be the next drug czar.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, first, back to the president’s public appearances today, the state of his agenda, and his working relationship with congressional Republicans.

    For more on all that, we turn to Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR.

    Politics Monday.

    Thank you both for being here.

    So, let’s start. We heard a little of this earlier, but let’s bore in on the president’s earlier criticism of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. The president had McConnell over to the White House today, as we saw earlier.

    Over the weekend, though, the president’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, spoke at the conservative Value Voters Summit. He was combative about mainstream Republican senators whom he is vowing to unseat. Let’s listen.

  • Steve Bannon, executive Chairman, Breitbart News:

    All you folks that are so concerned that you’re going to get primaried and defeated, you know, there’s time for mea culpa. You can come to a stick and condemn Senator Corker. And you can come to a stick, a microphone, and you can say, I’m not going to vote for Mitch McConnell for majority leader.

  • Sen. Mitch Mcconnell, r-ky., Majority Leader:

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

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Amy, I don’t know whether it’s complicated or not, but Mitch McConnell is saying the party is going to win the way it is, and Steve Bannon is saying, no, we have got to move to the populist right.

  • Amy Walter, The Cook Political Report:

    Right.

    Mitch McConnell is correct. His job is to protect the people in his party and the people in his caucus. Steve Bannon’s job is to protect the president, and what Steve Bannon sees as over-reliance on this establishment thinking. His job is to blow things up. Steve Bannon’s is. Mitch McConnell’s is to kind of — is to keep things steady as they go.

    And this is, in sum, the relationship between the Republican Party and Donald Trump, which is a president who came in vowing to shake up the establishment, to do things very differently. And the personnel who’s committed to doing this in — within their own party is Steve Bannon.

    And it’s Mitch McConnell whose job it is to try to keep these incumbents together. And, as we saw, Mitch McConnell and his team have spent a whole lot of money trying to protect one of those, Luther Strange in Alabama. Didn’t work out so well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Didn’t work out.

    And Steve Bannon really is trying to help some other candidates.

  • Tamara Keith, Npr:

    He is.

    He says that he wants to field candidates for basically every Senate race. He wants to go after people who are very conservative, who have never voted against President Trump on anything, but who are part of a leadership and support Mitch McConnell.

    The thing about today that was fascinating to me is, President Trump in his Cabinet meeting was asked about Bannon and says that he was sort of sympathetic to Bannon’s position, that he felt like there were some senators that — you know, some are good people, he said, but some of them need to go.

    And then he goes out, has this impromptu press conference in the Rose Garden with Mitch McConnell, and basically was like, yes, I’m with Mitch McConnell. We’re on the same team.

    Mitch McConnell is Steve Bannon’s public enemy number one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you set this up perfectly, because we were going to show — we are going to show what the president had to say, both at the Cabinet meeting and later with Senator McConnell. Here it is.

  • President Donald Trump

    : I can understand where Steve Bannon is coming from.

    And I can understand — to be honesty with you, John, I can understand where a lot of people are coming from, because I’m not happy about it and a lot of people aren’t happy about it.

    Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. 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.

    What Mitch will tell you is that, maybe with the exception of a few — and that is a very small few — I have a fantastic relationship with the people in the Senate and with the people in Congress. Just so you understand, the Republican Party is very, very unified.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Amy, as Tam said, which side is the president on here?

  • Amy Walter:

    You don’t hold a press conference in the Rose Garden to say that you are really unified with the person standing next to you if you are really unified, because we would know you’re unified. You don’t need to stand out in front of a bunch of cameras to tell people that you’re unified.

    It’s pretty clear why they did this today, because the story over the weekend of Steve Bannon and then the constant attacks of the president on Mitch McConnell.

    More important, the president’s agenda is not exactly lining up with where the Republican agenda is. What Mitch McConnell wants to do, number one, save the Senate. Number two, the way they think they’re going to save the Senate is by passing tax cuts, tax reform, whatever you want to call this. That’s what they want to focus on.

    The president, meanwhile, is throwing a whole bunch of other things on their plate, which could deter them, whether it’s from DACA, Iran, and now of course on Obamacare and the payments to the insurance companies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Tam, the president does keep bringing up health care. He brought it up again today. He said the short-term, we’re going to maybe get something. It may take — it left us all wondering, what exactly is going on with regard to health care?

  • Tamara Keith:

    And that is not entirely clear. It kind of depends on the minute.

    So, President Trump says, yes, maybe we can get this short deal. And, as you reported earlier, Patty Murray and Senator Alexander, Senator Murray and Senator Alexander, working on some sort of bipartisan maybe fix.

    But then you have the president’s budget director in an interview with Politico on Friday — this is Mick Mulvaney — making it very clear that the president isn’t going to accept some sort of small ball bipartisan deal. He wants more. He wants to extract more.

    You know, when the president has talked about, well, maybe we can do something with Democrats, he has typically still wanted to repeal Obamacare, and that’s not something that Democrats are interested in talking about.

  • Amy Walter:

    And this is the real danger for Republicans, which is, the president is very intent on showing that he’s followed through on his promises and protecting the Trump brand.

    He’s not as interested in protecting the Republican brand. He’s not on the ballot in 2018. His party is. So, Mitch McConnell obviously is much more concerned about what happens to his Republicans, the president much more concerned about what happens to the President Trump brand.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And he’s still — he’s talking about 2020.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Today, in that press conference, he was saying, oh, I hope Hillary Clinton runs in 2020.

    The president is very focused on 2020. And driving a wedge with Republicans in Congress and the establishment is great for his brand for 2020, but his presidency is contingent on what happens in 2018.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, it’s — and the different messages, the signals coming out of the White House out of Steve Bannon, who we know still talks to the president, leaves us al scratching our heads.

    I do want to ask you both about the reporting on CBS and The Washington Post over the weekend, really disturbing reporting about the links, the pharmaceutical industry, certain companies that ship drugs, Amy, to retail stores.

    They lobbied heavily to prevent any sort of slowdown in what they were doing because of the opioid — with the opioid epidemic. And fingers are reported at certain Republicans and a few Democrats on Capitol Hill.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

    A lot of this started under — the bill that was actually passed was passed under the Obama administration, so this is not just a partisan issue.

    The real question is whether Tom Marino, the congressman who shepherded this bill through Congress, is being — right now has been nominated as the drug czar for President Trump, whether he becomes now — either he is pulled out or at the very least a lot of very sharp questioning at his hearings.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes.

    And President Trump says he’s going to look into it. Meanwhile, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, as well as Joe Manchin from West Virginia are saying that he should withdraw. And President Trump didn’t dismiss that out of hand. He says, we’re going to have to look into Tom.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, Politics Monday.

    Thank you both.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You’re welcome.

  • Amy Walter:

    You’re welcome.

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