Special: The on-again, off-again relationship between President Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell

Oct. 20, 2017 AT 9:07 p.m. EDT

After a joint press conference this week, the panelists discussed the complex relationship between the president and the Senate majority leader. The conversation also turned to the future of midterm elections for Republicans and the Virginia gubernatorial race.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra .

The on again, off again friendship, rivalry, whatever you want to call it between President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to be on again this week. The president has in the recent past blamed McConnell for the failed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But, in an impromptu 45-minute news conference at the White House in the Rose Garden on Monday, President Trump said the two leaders are now supposedly closer than ever before. This came just days after President Trump’s former advisor and Breitbart Chairman Steve Bannon called for McConnell to lose his job. Jeff, what is this whiplash we’re watching in real time?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, I think the president might be right they’re closer than ever before, but that doesn’t say a lot. It also shows that they’ve been very far apart before. And boy, what a striking moment watching the two leaders there – you know, the two heads, basically, of the Republican Party, who could not be more different in style, substance, upbringing and everything else. But the reality is, I mean, they know they have to essentially hold hands now and try and get tax reform through. They don’t see eye to eye necessarily. Mitch McConnell’s never going to be out, you know, as one of the president’s close friends. But I do think that this animosity between them, it’s really hard to explain.

But the Steve Bannon role is fascinating. I mean, he – at the very moment the president is locking arms with him, he’s saying, you know, we need to cut off his oxygen. But I think Senator McConnell actually may have emerged OK out of this this week, because there he is with the president essentially saying, oh, some of these Republicans, they’re good guys, I’ll get Steve Bannon to sort of review this. So, I mean, the president’s been all over the map on that, but I think Senator McConnell actually emerged from this meeting – which could have gone any direction, actually – sort of OK.

MOLLY BALL: Well, it’s a marriage of convenience, right?

MR. ZELENY: No doubt.

MS. BALL: I mean, there’s no love lost there, and Steve Bannon absolutely has his finger on the pulse of the base on this. The base has no love for McConnell, and they blame McConnell for all the things that the – that the president has failed to do, all the lack of accomplishments this first almost year in office, and the president has thus found it convenient to scapegoat McConnell when he’s not getting his way. But Trump realizes he needs McConnell if he’s going to get anything done to make himself look good, and vice versa, right? McConnell is going to need Trump cheering him on in order to get his sort of fractious caucus all on the same page. I mean, we talked during the main show about Trump not really having a clear set of policy proposals that he campaigned on, but that was supposed to be a good thing because it meant that he could make deals and unite warring factions because he didn’t have a particular side. That dealmaker side of Trump is one that has not been particularly effective so far. And if he can actually hold hands with people on a situational basis that he needs to get things done, that would be real progress.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think what’s interesting seeing those two together is I think the juxtaposition between those two and Senator Schumer and President Trump. I think that they interact much more naturally. Even when they’re kind of arguing and going back and forth, you can kind of feel that there is just a more natural relationship there. I think that they really get each other. My sources say that the president actually really likes Chuck Schumer. And I think that while Mitch McConnell might be trying to kind of get what he can out of this relationship, I think he has to be also deathly afraid of the fact that Schumer can walk into the White House and basically talk to him and make deals with him in a way that Mitch McConnell hasn’t really done – hasn’t done thus far.

MR. ZELENY: He’s just from across town. I mean, that’s one thing. So they are sort of more eye to eye. But the president has a lot of advisors who will never let that happen.


MR. ZELENY: We’ve seen this week they’ll rein him in.


MR. COSTA: Do you think Bannon’s going to move away from his possible challenges, Molly, in Nebraska? He’s warned of a challenge there against Senator Fischer, in Wyoming Senator John Barrasso. The president called those senators this week and reportedly said he’d be willing to support them.

MS. BALL: Yeah, I mean, so far Bannon is all talk with this stuff, right? I mean, he potentially has some firepower with the money of the Mercer family and with Breitbart as a platform if he were to actually put together a targeted and focused political effort. We’ve seen no evidence that he has the ability or even the willingness to really do that beyond just like making some inflammatory speeches and throwing threats around. Let’s remember, you know, my former colleague Josh Kraushaar had a very smart column on this this week pointing out that, yeah, he belatedly took credit for Roy Moore winning the Alabama primary, Bannon did, but his track record is terrible. All of these candidates that Breitbart has backed in the past have gone nowhere. They went all in for Paul Ryan’s primary challenger, for example –

MR. COSTA: Paul Nehlen. I covered that race.

MS. BALL: – and that guy got 20 percent of the vote.

MR. COSTA: Even less.

MS. BALL: So the idea that – less than 20 percent, that’s right. And so the idea that Steve Bannon and Breitbart can sort of pull the strings of the Republican base in this way just by throwing random candidates into races against quite popular Republican members, like, at this point it’s all talk.

MR. COSTA: I just hear from friends of Bannon that he – whenever he’s confronted about don’t you want to have more wins than defeats, he says all I want is chaos, or disruption of the Republican Party.

MR. ZELENY: And he gets that a lot. The only one thing that’s different now than from the, you know, 2010 or whatever is that the president’s in the White House now, so he’s the sort of wild card here. If he gets behind someone, he can potentially make them a star. But we’ll see if he does.

MS. BALL: Didn’t work for Luther Strange. (Laughs.)

MR. COSTA: It did not work for Luther Strange, senator from Alabama.

Meanwhile, frustration is growing inside the Republican Party about, as Molly said, the inability to pass major legislation in Congress. Exhibit A: The announced departure of Congressman Pat Tiberi. He’s a Republican – mainstream Republican than others – from Ohio, currently serving his ninth term in the House. He’s a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee – we always use that phrase, “powerful Ways and Means Committee.” It’s the tax-writing committee. And this week he said he’ll leave office by the end of January. We’re about a year away now from the midterms elections, and another six Republicans in the House and one in the Senate have said they’re not running for reelection. Just two Democrats have said that they’ll retire next year. Yamiche, what do you make of the exodus on the Republican side?

MS. ALCINDOR: I think that there are a lot of Republicans who, one, I don’t think that they’re running from the Steve Bannon challenge, but they’re asking themselves do I want to put up with this and do I want to put up with having to possibly hold my nose and vote for things that I fundamentally don’t think are conservative. I talked to a couple Republicans this week and asked them, essentially, like how excited are you about having all the control of all the government. And they essentially said, what are the conservative values and policies that we’ve actually passed? Yes, we got a Supreme Court justice, but after that we really have nothing to show for it. So I think some of these Republicans are actually just tired of what they’re going to have to go through. And then some are seeing the writing on the wall and saying, OK, Mitch McConnell might, you know, be able to hold onto his seat, but is he going to be able to help me in my state? And the ghost of Luther Strange is, I think, going through the halls of Congress and President Trump is, I think, haunted by the fact that he threw his support behind somebody and they lost. I think while Steve Bannon is in some ways all talk, if President Trump starts getting scared and saying I don’t want another Luther Strange – because can he really have another Luther Strange and then his endorsement still matter? If he gets that in the back of his head, he could throw his support behind anybody. There could be five more Roy Moores.

MR. ZELENY: Always important to remember in midterm elections the races are largely done, especially in the Senate, separately state by state. Yes, there can be a national wave, but it rises and falls so much on the quality of the candidate, the dynamic there. So Alabama is a test case, yes, but probably not the most ideal one because of Roy Moore or Luther Strange.

MS. ALCINDOR: Or the state of Alabama.

MS. BALL: I’m actually going to disagree with you, though. I think midterm elections are all about the national climate, and I think that that’s why the retirements are so disproportionately on one side. Nobody knows how to read the political wind better than a longtime sitting member of Congress, and they can – they are getting a feeling about this. And they may be wrong, but you know, Donald Trump once famously promised there will be so much winning you will get bored of winning, right? And these guys are apparently bored of winning. It is really remarkable for your party to have historic consolidated control of the White House and both houses of Congress. That ought to be the apex of your political career – you get to finally do stuff – and they’re profoundly disillusioned and they’re not having fun.

MR. COSTA: We’ll see if they can have more fun in the coming months. It’s fun to cover them, I’ll tell you that.

President Trump is getting ready for a 12-day trip to Asia next month. It comes as the president continues to weigh his options to respond to potential aggression from North Korea, which has been ramping up testing its missiles and nuclear weapons programs for months. As a potential symbol of his opposition to Kim Jong-un, the administration is reportedly debating whether the president should make a trip to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. But what are the military options being presented to the president, Nancy, as he heads over to Asia?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I’ll tell you what’s interesting. Leading up to this, we’re seeing from both Pyongyang and Washington two very different positions. We heard from H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, at a talk this week that the U.S. position is that North Korea must denuclearize, that freezing is not an acceptable outcome. And at the same time, they said that should it be necessary, the U.S. will explore military options. Meanwhile, we’re hearing from North Korean diplomats that the nuclear weapons program is not going to go away, it is life or death for us. So you’re starting to see both sides really, rather than get closer to a position, get further and further away.

And in this climate we’re hearing from U.S. military officials that they’re starting to see movement of equipment in North Korea, and yet nothing imminent. And so the fear is that we will see some sort of test or some sort of launch while President Trump is in the region, perhaps –

MR. COSTA: That’s pretty provocative.

MS. YOUSSEF: It would be very provocative. But you’ll note we haven’t had any tests recently, relatively speaking. There was a big anticipation we’d see one around Columbus Day weekend. It’s a holiday – national holiday in North Korea, and of course a holiday here. And so there’s an anxiety about will we see a provocative test or provocative action during that visit, at a time when both sides are so polarized and so unwilling to move on their positions and saying that there’s no wiggle room on either side in terms of the position that they’re taking.

MR. COSTA: Based on that, is the president being advised to not go to the DMZ, to not try to provoke Kim Jong-un?

MS. YOUSSEF: I don’t think that visit is the provocative act. It is the going to the region. It’s whatever he says or tweets. It’s those. The read that I have is North Korea is not provoked by the visit as much as if there’s a test done or – between allies by the military. Those are the things that provoke. One of the things you hear about Kim Jong-un, he’s a rational actor, that is, so the move that he makes are really with a long-term strategic interest in mind. And if he’s provoked by anything, it’s by military tests, military exercises with their partners in the region.

MR. COSTA: Molly, we also saw this week – you’ve paid attention to this race all year, the Virginia gubernatorial race. Any updates on this close race? It seems surprisingly close between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie.

MS. BALL: Yeah, and so it is a very – we don’t actually know how close the race is because the polls have been all over the map. And the polling was significantly off four years ago, when the current Democratic governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, was – won the election, but in a squeaker in an election that the polls had shown not to be close. Now you have a lot of very worried Virginia Democrats for a couple of reasons. First of all, you never know about turnout in an off-off-year election like this, but Republicans can be counted on to vote and the Democratic base not so much. And then there’s the national political climate and all the uncertainty, some polls showing the race actually tied or even with the Republican, Ed Gillespie, slightly up in one case. And some perceived shortcomings on the part of the Democratic candidate; Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam looks very good on paper, he’s a veteran, he’s a surgeon, but some of his commercials and his public appearances have caused Democratic strategists to wonder if he’s – if he has it in him to pull this off.

The Gillespie campaign is also, to me, really interesting as someone who’s trying to understand the changed political climate in America in the age of Trump. And this is a guy who’s the ultimate Republican establishmentarian. He was a former RNC chair, Washington lobbyist, very much a sort of mainstream Beltway Republican. But he’s running this campaign on these divisive cultural wedge issues, chiefly accusing his opponent of all but being a member of the Latin American gang MS-13, and Confederate statues, saying that they ought to stay up. And so these are clearly poll-tested lines that his campaign believes are going to be effective, and it really, I think, speaks to the era of politics that we’re in that these are the kind of debates that candidates want to be having.

And we’ll see if it’s a successful strategy given the climate in Virginia. This is a blue state at this point. This is a state that – one of the few swing states that Donald Trump did not win in 2016, and it’s – the demographics have been trending steadily in favor of the Democrats for the last decade-plus. But there’s so much uncertainty in this kind of an election. And that’s why, although, you know, we always tend to overread in the national media these kinds of signals, but that’s why we’re all so interested in it as a sort of bellwether of politics in America right now.

MR. COSTA: Virginia gubernatorial elections are always bellwethers.

MS. BALL: They are like it or not.

MR. COSTA: Like it or not.

We’re going to leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra . While you’re online, please check out the news you need to know, the top stories from your favorite Washington Week reporters, many of them – all of them here at this table right now.

I’m Robert Costa. We’ll see you next time.


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