President Trump’s first telephone conversation with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in April of 2016 was viewed by our campaign as a missed opportunity.
Despite a sensible plan and the best of intentions, the two men just did not hit it off. It happens. But usually not between a future president and a senate majority leader.
Later that same month, there was hope surrounding the first face-to-face meeting in Washington, D.C. but it too was just as tense and awkward ending with a growing divide between them.
One message repeatedly suggested to Trump before their first encounter was, "just don’t attack McConnell in his own backyard."
He vocally disagreed with this approach for almost the entirety of the 28-minute flight between New York City and Washington, D.C.
In Trump’s words, McConnell represented, everything that was wrong with politics and politicians. Surprisingly, the president did not throw the first punch that day.
Instead, it was McConnell who took a few petty swipes first.
The encounter cemented one undeniable fact in 2016 which remains true even today.
There is virtually no relationship between them.
The two men never established any bonds that would bring them together.
It's the classic scenario of consummate insider versus unorthodox outsider.
They see the world through two different prisms.
Trump was never part of the Washington, D.C. establishment, believes it to be the root failure of our entire government, and only loathed it the more he was in it.
McConnell virtually lived his entire life steeped in it, profiting politically and financially from it, and is arguably now more beholden to its institutions than the people he serves.
However, many of Trump’s policy victories, and certainly the confirmation of his three Supreme Court nominees were achieved because of McConnell’s experience and mastery of the Senate’s archaic bureaucracy.
Now the Republican party is charting into unknown territory.
The traditional leadership transition from a defeated president to a new leader did not happen. Trump’s position is unequivocal.
He's not going anywhere anytime soon.
The divide between Trump and McConnell expands daily and has for months.
Both leaders are amping up their rhetoric about a path to victory in 2022, while at the same time excoriating each other for losing the White House and the Senate in 2020.
What happens next?
An epic war for the hearts, souls and minds of conservative voters is underway.
Multiple battles between the two are already being waged. Trump’s recent acquittal from his second impeachment trial now allows him to formally take up the mantle as the party’s leader.
Polls clearly show the core base of the party fully supports the president.
But how long will it last?
In a recent interview Trump was both playful and cagey when asked directly if he would run for the presidency in 2024.
There's a reason for his banter.
The former president is in a unique position and he knows it.
He will use this posture as he plots his course forward.
If he leads supporters, and other hopeful candidates waiting in the wings, toward the belief that he will run in 2024 then other candidates will be reluctant to challenge him.
If he ultimately decides not to run, other candidates will still need his blessing to secure the party’s nomination.
So — Mitch McConnell Meets With Trump And Pence On Capitol Hill regardless of his ultimate decision for 2024, President Trump will lead the party and determine its future.
Yet, to solidify his stronghold over the party and strengthen his own presidential prospects, President Trump will need to marshal the party to some form of victory in the 2022 midterm elections.
No one recognizes this better than Sen. McConnell.
It's why he uncharacteristically and publicly announced a few days ago that he will play a substantial role in Republican primaries for Senate candidates. He is sending a pointed message to the president: You cost me the Senate and my power. You lost the White House. I don’t care about your brand or support within the party. I am not going away, I have been here longer, and I will use every tool I have to win back the Senate in 2022.
McConnell’s visceral and public condemnation of Trump over the last several weeks is a result of years of suppressed anger and frustration.
But he's also the first to concede that his singular goal of reclaiming the majority in the Senate requires Trump’s support.
McConnell needs him to win.
He does not like it, but he will work with it. Now the delicate balance of the party and its 2022 outcome sits between these two leaders.
Following McConnell’s recent public scolding, President Trump predictably released a scathing and targeted attack on McConnell earlier last week even suggesting that the party topple him.
While there was considerable support for this cause and a view that McConnell betrayed the president and the party, ultimately he survived, even garnering support from Trump supporters. It's the clearest sign yet that vast majority of Republicans recognize the need to exhibit stability, and expand their reach and resources if they are going to win the upcoming midterm elections.
It's an intricate and delicate dance in which Trump and McConnell are carefully choreographing their steps.
They are inevitably intertwined for the moment by the common goal of winning.
Yet both are separately and ruthlessly vying to lay claim as sole leader of the Republican party. It will be a visible and menacing battle, a fight that will undoubtedly go the distance.
Rick Gates is the former deputy chairman for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He is the author of “Wicked Game: An Insider’s Story to How Trump Won, Mueller Failed, and America Lost.”
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