Trump suggests Senate GOP leader must deliver or step aside

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump escalated a stunning feud against his top Senate partner Thursday, suggesting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have to think about stepping aside if he doesn't deliver on the president's agenda of health care, taxes and infrastructure.

Trump called McConnell's failure to pass an "Obamacare" repeal last month "a disgrace." Asked if McConnell should consider stepping aside or retiring, an outcome some conservatives are openly clamoring for, the president's response was far from a vote of confidence.

"Well I tell you what, if he doesn't get repeal and replace done and if he doesn't get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn't get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure, if he doesn't get them done, then you can ask me that question," the president told reporters in Bedminster, New Jersery, where he is in the midst of a 17-day golf vacation.

There was no immediate response from McConnell's office.

A sitting president openly turning on a Senate majority leader of his own party in such a fashion is practically unheard of — yet another norm destroyed since Trump's rise on the political scene. And while the fighting words might elate Trump's core supporters, they can only hurt broader Republican efforts to move major legislation this fall on taxes and spending while preparing for congressional elections next year where energized Democrats are rallying to retake the House. Republicans control both chambers, but the Trump factor in many races remains a mystery.

Trump's comments came after he spent two days slamming McConnell over Twitter, writing Thursday morning that after "screaming" about repealing and replacing "Obamacare" for seven years, McConnell "couldn't get it done." Several hours later, the president's tone took a motivational turn as he exhorted, "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!"

The presidential megaphone amplified the McConnell-bashing that's been snaking through conservative media: Breitbart News, Fox News' Sean Hannity and radio host Rush Limbaugh are among those who have vilified the leader after the Senate's failure on health care late last month. They represent a segment of the Republican electorate, including some major donors, who are out to punish what they see as a "do-nothing Congress" that has hampered the president's goals.

McConnell is "a coward who leads from behind," ''spineless," and a lifelong "political animal" of the sort Trump wants to eject from Washington, said Doug Deason, a major donor based in Texas who said he decided months ago not to give money to any Republicans up for re-election next year, unless they can pass Trump's priorities.

Trump and his supporters love such political brawls, and the McConnell flare-up potentially shores up the president's base at a time when it is showing signs of weakening support. But McConnell's supporters saw Trump's moves as counterproductive.

"Virtually any substantial goals that the president intends to achieve, whether it is tax reform or more infrastructure, requires the active assistance of the Senate majority leader," said Michael Steel, who was spokesman to former House Speaker John Boehner.

Even Newt Gingrich, a Trump backer and informal adviser who formerly served as speaker of the House, criticized the dispute.

"You saw Mitch McConnell say something, you saw Trump say something, when it's obviously better for them to learn not to do that," Gingrich said. "They have to work together. Governing is a team sport."

After the failure on health care, McConnell and other Republican leaders, including top White House economic officials, are determined to pivot to overhauling the tax code with the hope of passing cuts by the end of the year. There are numerous daunting challenges to that, but McConnell has made clear he has little interest in revisiting a health care fight he is numerically doomed to lose.

"The leader has spoken repeatedly about the path forward regarding Obamacare repeal and replace on the Senate floor, at media availabilities and in Kentucky," spokesman David Popp said Thursday before Trump's comments suggesting McConnell's eventual exit might become necessary.

Trump, 71, and McConnell, 75, have never been easy allies, even though the senator's wife, Elaine Chao, is the president's transportation secretary. McConnell only met Trump for the first time in 2013, when he made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower in New York to ask the businessman for campaign money.

But McConnell quickly boarded the Trump train once the mogul secured the GOP nomination, and unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan and others, he never wavered. He's paid numerous visits to the White House this year and traveled with Trump in March to Louisville. That Trump rally predated all of Congress' attempts to redo health care, and the president urged the crowd to "be nice" to McConnell.

Fast forward to August, with the Senate on recess after the collapse of the GOP health care bill.

McConnell touched a nerve by telling an audience in his home state that Trump had "not been in this line of work before" and had "excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process."

Brent Bozell, a longtime McConnell detractor and president of the conservative social media group For America, said the Senate leader had made a ridiculous argument that will haunt him.

"By calling President Trump a political neophyte, McConnell is saying that Trump doesn't understand that Congress doesn't keep its promises," Bozell said. "This is exactly why Trump won — to shake up Washington, and that includes Republicans."

And yet, in opening a door he might want to try to shove McConnell out of, Trump once against demonstrated his naivete in Washington's ways. A Senate majority leader is elected by members of his own conference, and McConnell has plenty of support within his, regardless of anything Trump may say about it.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a senior lawmaker and vocal Trump backer, said over Twitter that McConnell "has been the best leader we've had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him."

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AP reporter Jonathan Lemire in Bedminster, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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