Trump vs McConnell – A Lesson In Blame Avoidance And Redirection?

Trump, Mitch McConnell, crisis, Senate, Republican Party
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) and President Donald J. Trump. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images

In 2016, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell endorsed Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for president. Perhaps McConnell should have paid attention to the examples of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, that Trump appears to support his allies when it is politically convenient to do so and cuts them loose when it is equally convenient.

Two weeks ago that the Republican-controlled Senate rejected President Trump’s attempt to repeal the health care Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare.

On Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted, “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!” And later that same day, the president said: “I’m very disappointed in Mitch. If he gets these bills passed, I’ll be very happy with him and I’ll be the first to admit it.” Later, whilst enjoying his golfing holiday in New Jersey, President Trump further tweeted, “Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure Bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!”

It’s not uncommon for presidents to lose patience with members of their party, but there’s no recent precedent for a president to attack the Senate leader of his own party.

Why would the president attack the most powerful senator in his own party?

Since March 2010 when then-President Barack Obama signed the ACA into law, Senator McConnell has led congressional Republicans in promising to repeal the bill. Indeed, this was a signature platform of the Republican Party for the last four congressional and two presidential elections. Further, throughout 2016, candidate Trump promised that if elected, his first order of business would be to repeal the ACA.

In 2017, despite the Republican Party controlling both houses of Congress, and The White House, the Senate majority leader was unable to corral enough members of his party to pass the bill. The failure of Republicans to act on the ACA hurt Trump, and redirecting blame is a standard approach in strategic crisis management. The president needs to provide his supporters with an avenue to direct their anger, lest they blame him.

According to a recent IBD/TIPP poll, Trump’s approval rating is at 35.9%. Despite approximately two-thirds of the country having an unfavorable opinion of the president, he is still considerably more popular than Congress. In July 2017, a Gallup poll found that the Legislative Branch had an approval rating of just 20%.

The inability to repeal the ACA is highly embarrassing to the Republican Party, and to date, no one has been held accountable – something which for a man famous for saying, “You’re fired” is unacceptable.

What does the future hold?

On Thursday, the president suggested that if McConnell failed to get the health care package passed through Congress, then he would ask him to resign. However, the Senate does not report to the president – it is one of the three equal branches of government – and he had no authority over the Senate, so McConnell would be under no obligation to do so.

It will make for future meetings of the president’s cabinet interesting, considering McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao who is also Trump’s Secretary of Transportation.

In fact, this whole episode might even enhance McConnell’s authority. By using a big stick approach to try to embarrass the Senate majority leader, the president may have in fact jeopardized the willingness of his own party to pass any of his future legislation. Without McConnell’s full support in the Senate, Trump’s legislative agenda is dead. Although the president may have started this public squabble, Senator McConnell will get the last laugh.