Trump’s attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid

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FILE: President Donald Trump speaks alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as they hold a meeting about tax reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

(The Hill) — Former President Donald Trump is refusing to let his feud with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) die, instead amplifying it in what Republican strategists suspect is an effort to rev up the GOP base ahead of a 2024 campaign for president.

More than anyone else in politics, McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is emblematic of the Republican establishment in Washington, and Trump’s repeated salvos against McConnell appear designed to make it clear to GOP base voters that Trump — despite his four years in the White House — would be the true outsider candidate in a 2024 primary.

Trump has signaled his interest in running again for president in other ways, including supporting the work of the Make America Great Again Action super PAC, which held its first fundraising event at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

The former president is framing the 2022 Republican primaries as a choice between his “America First” brand of conservative populism and a party establishment that isn’t entirely in step with its conservative base.

“It’s the clearest sign he’s running for president,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell of Trump’s repeated attacks on McConnell.

Trump’s latest shot was to rip McConnell for being one of 19 Senate Republicans who voted in August for a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which the House passed last week, giving President Joe Biden a major win. 

“Why is it that Old Crow Mitch McConnell voted for a terrible Democrat Socialist Infrastructure Plan, and induced others in his Party to do likewise, when he was incapable of getting a great Infrastructure Plan wanting to be put forward by me and the Republican Party?” Trump fumed in a statement Tuesday

Biden and Democrats will be able to point to the largest infrastructure spending bill in history as a significant accomplishment ahead of the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election and conservatives are furious about it. 

Thirteen House Republicans voted for the measure Friday, drawing immediate backlash and condemnation from their more conservative colleagues.

“What he’s saying is that McConnell isn’t able to keep his caucus in line. The people that are most upset about this bill are the base of the Republican Party, and what Donald Trump is saying is, ‘Your party has let you down again and only I can keep them in line,’” O’Connell added.

Ned Ryun, a Trump ally and founder and CEO of American Majority, a conservative group that trains candidates and activists, says he has no doubt Trump is gearing up for another presidential run.

“He’s not going anywhere. He just raised however much money he raised in his super PAC. He’s not doing that to play tiddlywinks. Get ready for Trump 2024,” he said. 

Ryun noted that McConnell has never been especially popular with the Republican base and said that’s why Republican candidate Eric Greitens, who is running for Senate in Missouri and angling for Trump’s endorsement, has said he won’t support McConnell for another term as Senate GOP leader.

Ryun said other Senate Republican primary candidates are also thinking about trying to make McConnell an issue in their races.

“I would not be surprised if people in Arizona, Ohio and other key Senate races come out and say that,” he said, referring to Greitens’s pledge to vote against McConnell’s bid for another leadership term.

Ryun said the call to replace McConnell as leader gives Trump a powerful argument as a candidate who would run again as a Republican outsider.

He said Trump is speaking out “to see if we can get real America First leadership in the Senate.” 

“Is it him trying to agitate to see how far people are willing to go to say, ‘We want America First leadership or better leadership than Mitch McConnell that is more reflective of the base’? Yeah, I can see where Trump is trying to nudge them in that direction,” he added.

Senate Republican sources, however, say McConnell doesn’t face any challenge to his leadership post from within the Senate Republican Conference, and no GOP senator has indicated any desire to run against him for the top leadership post. 

A senior Senate Republican aide said McConnell still has rock-solid support from fellow Republican senators.  

“With his members, it has zero effect,” the source said of the effect Trump’s attacks have on McConnell’s standing as leader.

McConnell has defended his support for the $1 trillion infrastructure bill as motivated by the interests of his home state of Kentucky, which will receive an estimated $4 billion to address its backlog of deferred maintenance and other priorities. 

“We have a lot of infrastructure needs, both in rural areas and with big bridges. It’s a godsend for Kentucky,” he told local CBS News affiliate WKYT.

He noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Kentucky’s infrastructure a “C-minus.” 

But while the federal funding may be a big help for the infrastructure needs of Kentucky, it also gives Trump a good wedge issue to divide the party leadership in Washington from the GOP base, which remains largely loyal to the former president.

“I thought the vote for the infrastructure bill was going to be a bad vote for Republicans, months ago,” said Vin Weber, a GOP strategist. “And I believe it is and it’s going to be for those Republicans that voted for it.

“This is an opportunity for Trump to take a shot at McConnell. I think it’s he doesn’t want any competing voices in the Republican Party at all,” he added. “McConnell is the biggest figure remaining in the Republican Party right now and has been for a long time. I just think Trump doesn’t like that.”

McConnell and Trump had a good working relationship for the most part during Trump’s four years in the White House. Their most tense moment while Trump was in office came when the president slammed McConnell over the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, after the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) surprised his colleagues by voting to kill the so-called skinny repeal plan.

The two leaders split after the 2020 election, when McConnell informed Trump in a mid-December phone call, a day after the Electoral College voted, that he would recognize Biden as the president-elect. McConnell said that was the last time he spoke to Trump.

Their relationship grew more tense in the following weeks when McConnell dissuaded his Senate colleagues from supporting an objection to the Electoral College tally on Jan. 6.

The final breaking point came when a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to halt Congress’s certification of the Electoral College. 

McConnell’s associates later told media outlets that the GOP leader was “furious” over the day’s events, which left several people dead, including a Capitol Police officer. 

McConnell vented his anger with the president when he delivered a scathing speech on the Senate floor after voting on technical grounds against convicting Trump on an article of impeachment accusing him of inciting an insurrection. 

“There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” McConnell said on the floor.

“A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name,” he added. “These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags and screaming their loyalty to him.”

Trump lashed out in response a few days later by issuing a 600-word statement calling for Senate Republicans to replace McConnell as leader. 

“If Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” Trump warned.

Since that high-profile public battle, McConnell has regularly avoided questions about Trump’s repeated attacks and always says he wants to stay focused on fighting Biden’s agenda and winning back the Senate majority in 2022.

McConnell said earlier this year he would “absolutely” support Trump in 2024 if he is the Republican nominee for president.

Al Cross, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics, said McConnell just has to worry about keeping the loyalty of the Senate GOP conference and doesn’t have anything to gain by hitting back at Trump.

“McConnell does not have a national constituency other than the 49 other Republican senators. He doesn’t have to worry so much about public opinion polls,” he said.

“There is no percentage in firing back at Donald J. Trump, and McConnell always plays the percentages,” he added. “McConnell’s prime directive is to avoid splitting the caucus and by extension the party.”

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