McConnell, Trump bury hatchet with eye on GOP takeover

MixCollage 13 Jun 2024 11 56 AM 9309

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and former President Trump made efforts on Thursday to bury the hatchet and end their long-running feud as GOP confidence grows that the party could win both chambers of Congress and the White House this fall.

It was uncertain initially whether McConnell would even attend the lunch meeting hosted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) with Trump, given more than three years of acrimony between the two leaders stemming from Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election.

Their relationship hit a low point in 2022 when Trump declared McConnell had a “death wish” because of his support for bipartisan legislation and mocked his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, as McConnell’s “China loving wife” and “Coco Chow.”

 Yet, McConnell sat close to Trump at a big rectangular table decorated with red tablecloth and warmly applauded when Senate Republicans presented the Trump with a birthday cake a day before his 78th birthday.

The top of the cake was decorated with two candles — one in the shape of 45 and the other in the shape of 47 —  to mark Trump’s first term as president and reflect Senate Republicans’ hope that Trump will to become the nation’s 47th leader.

McConnell gave reporters a glowing account of the lunch and noted that he had a few chances to speak with Trump and to shake his hand.

“We had a really positive meeting. He and I got a chance to talk a little bit, shook hands a few times,” McConnell told reporters after the meeting, adding that Trump received several standing ovations.

“It was an entirely positive meeting,” he added. “I can’t think of anything out of it to tell you that was negative.”

Senators said that Trump made efforts to praise McConnell to his colleagues, even though he had urged them repeatedly to oust him as Senate GOP leader after he opposed Trump’s effort to block the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

“The president spoke favorably about Mitch, about all the work he did to try to hold the conference together,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Ky.). “He was very complimentary.”

Another Republican senator who attended the meeting said Trump graciously sought to bury the blame game that had erupted Trump and McConnell allies after Senate Republicans lost a seat in the 2022 midterm election.

“He said about 2022, that ‘Mitch, it wasn’t really your fault that we lost Senate seats and it wasn’t my fault,’” said the senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the private interaction.

“That was a gracious thing.  And then he said later on, ‘I know. Mitch, you’ve always worked really hard to increase the number of [Senate] Republicans. Given the history of their relationship, I thought that was [Trump] really offering an olive branch, being very, very warm,” the lawmaker said.

It was quite a change of tone compared to after the midterm election, when Trump urged Florida Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to challenge McConnell for the top leadership job.

Trump slammed McConnell at the time as a “lousy leader” and declared “people are very upset with Mitch McConnell.”

Despite Trump’s maneuvers, McConnell went on to handily defeated Scott in a hastily organized race by a vote of 36 to 10

The senator said Trump’s magnanimous comments toward McConnell on Thursday were intended to help unify the GOP ahead of the fall election, and reflected that Trump feels assured that he’s won the power struggle with Senate Republican critics.

“I just think that Trump won and Mitch lost. Mitch wanted Trump in jail. Not only did that not happen, he’s the nominee. The visuals tell the story, Trump comes into this meeting and Mitch deliberately chooses to be on his right hand and [Senate Republican Whip] John Thune [R-S.D.] deliberately chooses to be on his left hand. They want to be seen with him,” the lawmaker said, describing the seating arrangement at the meeting.

A video of the meeting posted online by Trump’s campaign showed McConnell sitting close to Trump’s righthand with Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) sitting between them.

A third senator said Trump went out of his way several times to praise McConnell or mention his name.

The lawmaker, who also requested anonymity to discuss the meeting, said Trump was “making a point to project a positive attitude toward Mitch” and “never” mentioned “a reference to any disagreement.”

Senate Republicans expressed relief Thursday that McConnell and Trump are moving beyond their bitter feud, which has hovered over the Senate Republican conference since December of 2020, the last time McConnell and Trump spoke.

GOP senators say they hope that whoever replaces McConnell as Senate Republican leader will have a better relationship with Trump, whom they fully expect to defeat President Biden in November.

Tuberville said that Thune acknowledged during a private meeting with him in March “that there can’t be a rocky relationship” with Trump “or he won’t be leader.”

Thune, the No. 2-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who are running to succeed McConnell as leader, have criticized Trump in the past.

But both Thune and Cornyn are now emphasizing to Senate GOP colleagues that they will work closely with Trump if elected to the top leadership job.

Scott, who is also running to succeed McConnell, is a loyal Trump ally who recently traveled to Manhattan to show support for him at his criminal trial on 34 counts of falsifying business records.

Senate Republicans say that working closely with Trump will be critical to winning competitive races in Senate battleground states such as Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Senate Republican strategists note that in the last two presidential elections, only one Senate incumbent won in a state that their party’s presidential candidate lost. That was Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who won re-election in 2020, despite Biden winning her state with 53 percent of the vote.

“President Trump’s going to do very well in these key battleground states. He needs to win these states to win the presidency and we’ll be working alongside President Trump in these races to ensure he wins and to ensure our Senate candidates win. Because without a Senate Republican majority, President Trump won’t be able to get his agenda through,” said NRSC Chairman Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who co-hosted Thursday’s meeting with Trump.

Trump pledged to Senate Republicans that he would help them raise money and hold tele-townhall events with GOP candidates to help boost their profiles with base voters, according to senators who attended the meeting.

“He said he’ll be actively involved. He’ll do all he can to help us,” Daines said after the meeting.

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