Mitch McConnell, Never a Grandstander, Learns to Play by Trump’s Rules

WASHINGTON — President Trump was walking through the Capitol corridors in February, en route to his State of the Union address, when he spied Mitch McConnell, the taciturn Senate majority leader, and rumbled over to deliver his signature verbal high-five.

“Mitch!” Mr. Trump said in a voice loud enough to be heard by a Republican aide pinned against a nearby wall. “I just saw you on Fox! You were totally great with Martha MacCallum!” he added, referring to a prespeech TV appearance in which he denounced the shutdown Mr. Trump initiated against his advice.

Mr. McConnell, of Kentucky, who grumbled in private about Mr. Trump’s decision, managed a laugh. The senator, allergic to public glad-handing, would have preferred a more substantive interaction. He had spent much of that week urging Mr. Trump, unsuccessfully, to abandon his plan to declare a national emergency at the border with Mexico to secure wall funds that Congress had denied him.

But the exchange captured the essence of an awkward, compulsory yet increasingly close working relationship between two men divided by temperament but Krazy Glued together by shared self-interest. Over the past six months, necessity has cast Mr. McConnell into a new role — as one of the president’s most important counselors, upping the pace and intensity of his one-on-one interactions. Nowadays, he speaks with Mr. Trump nearly every day and far more frequently during times of crisis, according to interviews with two dozen lawmakers, White House aides and administration officials.

“The president talks to the leader a lotand vice versa,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama.

Seeking little credit — and getting even less — Mr. McConnell has expedited virtually everything Mr. Trump has asked of him since 2017, rolling back Obama-era regulations, ramming through a giant tax cut that has driven up an already high budget deficit and playing wingman to the White House on contentious nominations, even those he had questioned, like Brett M. Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court.

But critics say Mr. McConnell’s acquiescence — he even strong-armed Senate rule changes to ease the president’s nominations to confirmation — has only encouraged Mr. Trump to go further out of the mainstream. While other Republicans have openly questioned Mr. Trump’s intention to nominate a former pizza magnate, Herman Cain, and a conservative commentator, Stephen Moore, to the Federal Reserve Board, Mr. McConnell has held his tongue. He has scarcely mentioned last week’s jarring shake-up at the Department of Homeland Security.

And Congress has left for a two-week spring recess without passing a popular and much-in-demand disaster relief bill, in large part because Mr. McConnell does not want to provoke Mr. Trump by adding money for Puerto Rico that Democrats are demanding but the president is refusing.

Mr. McConnell, speaking in his office last week, promoted his collaboration with the White House on nominations and tax reform but pushed back when asked if Mr. Trump’s unpredictable behavior had hijacked his legacy.

“My legacy is shaped by how I handle myself and what I do,” he said. “He sends up the nominees and signs the bills.”

Democrats disagree. “Anyone that deals with the president is part of the Trump message,” said former Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who was majority leader, when asked about Mr. McConnell during a phone interview on Saturday. “It’s not anything you want to define who you are, you know, by virtue of Donald Trump. But they are stuck with him. It’s too bad.”

Mr. McConnell has been willing to express his opinions to the president in private. He vehemently opposed the emergency declaration at the border, continues to noodge him on tariffs and trade, counseled the president not to appoint Ryan Zinke as interior secretary, pushed him not to withdraw troops from Syria and has, from time to time, even urged him to cool it on Twitter.

“I think Senator McConnell is not hesitant to give his advice, and the president appears to be increasingly wiling to listen to that advice,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri.

Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s first press secretary, added, “I think the president has come around to the idea that Mitch is as good at his job as he is at real estate.”

The two men are not personally close, but the leader has always had an open line to the president. Until recently, Mr. McConnell preferred to discuss granular details with intermediaries, especially former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the former White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II.

Two factors have made that approach less attractive: the arrival of Mick Mulvaney, a former Freedom Caucus hard-liner in the House, as acting White House chief of staff and the diminished clout of Vice President Mike Pence as a dealmaker.

In closed-door meetings with negotiators during the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history, Mr. Pence, with Mr. Trump’s blessing, offered a compromise to reopen the government that would have provided about half of the $5.7 billion that Mr. Trump had publicly demanded. Mr. Trump shot it down.

Soon after, Mr. McConnell told one fellow Republican senator that Mr. Pence, while well intentioned, could not be entirely relied upon as a negotiator who spoke for the president.

David Popp, a spokesman for the majority leader, said it was “unfair and untrue” to say Mr. McConnell had lost faith in the vice president.

But Mr. McConnell has told allies he is convinced that the only way to sway Mr. Trump is one-on-one, preferably with no one else in the room, since leaks appear inevitable when Mr. Trump summons aides and relatives to his Oval Office free-for-alls.

During the February debate over the border wall, Mr. McConnell took it one step further, requesting an early-morning meeting with Mr. Trump in the White House residence, according to a person later briefed on the meeting.

Cozying up to Mr. Trump does not come naturally to Mr. McConnell, who has a sly, sometimes self-lacerating, sense of humor. Mr. Trump surrounds himself with self-aggrandizing magazine covers; by contrast, Mr. McConnell’s office in Louisville is decorated with political cartoons depicting him as, among other things, a turtle.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has courted Mr. Trump relentlessly, has stepped in with some advice for Mr. McConnell.

“Your biggest problem is that he thinks you only call him with bad news,” Mr. Graham told the leader recently, according to a senator who was present for the exchange. “You got to keep positive, get in fast and get out fast.”

Mr. McConnell prefers more businesslike interactions. On health care, he was direct; he called Mr. Trump to deliver a verdict — “no way” would he go along with a new effort to repeal the health law.

“I told him that this was not going to be on the agenda,” Mr. McConnell informed senators week at a recent Tuesday lunch.

Other times, Mr. McConnell sends his message more by what he does not do than what he does. The president’s emergency declaration was a flagrant violation of Congress’s constitutional prerogative to control the federal purse strings, an issue dear to the majority leader, a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee. Since Mr. McConnell had used the declaration as a way to reopen the government, he could hardly vote to overturn it.

But he did almost nothing to stem the defection of a dozen Republicans, an embarrassing rebuke. Before the vote, he instructed members to “vote your politics,” freeing them to do whatever they pleased.

Mr. Trump was infuriated, telling a visitor to Mar-a-Lago, the president’s club in Palm Beach, Fla., that he felt let down by Mr. McConnell.

None of this impresses Democrats. Neither Mr. McConnell nor Mr. Trump has proposed a serious policy agenda for the next year, they say, apart from changing procedural rules in the Senate to keep the “conveyor belt” of Trump judicial and subcabinet appointments humming.

“When Democrats were in the majority, we had a positive legislative agenda that would help the middle class in this country,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “The Senate Republican agenda for the last two years has been to do whatever Donald Trump tweeted that morning.”

Mr. McConnell’s approach is rooted in his personal political realities: He cannot afford to have the president, whose support with the party’s base remains solid, turn on him.

He is also up for re-election next year, in a state enthralled with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump has mostly spared Mr. McConnell the scorching disdain he had for former Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who had criticized Mr. Trump’s personal behavior. The president has told people that he considered Mr. McConnell “stiff” and “boring,” but that is about it.

The obvious differences between Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell obscure equally obvious similarities. Both are obsessed with winning; both are transactional, both have a highly attuned sense of self-preservation, both are obsessed with getting re-elected.

Another tie that binds: Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is his transportation secretary. The leader has been unapologetic about leveraging that connection to bring increased funding to Kentucky.

But managing Mr. Trump with Mr. Mulvaney in the president’s ear is challenging. Mr. Mulvaney goaded Mr. Trump into forcing the government shutdown in December, then tried to blow up the final deal to reopen it. Mr. Mulvaney, among others, helped sell the president on a short-lived effort to press congressional Republicans to try again to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

While Mr. McConnell does not interact with Mr. Mulvaney much, he did reach out to him last year, when Mr. Mulvaney was running the White House budget office, to ask that the president request $400 million for a new Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Louisville, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation.

Mr. Mulvaney said yes.


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