President Donald Trump privately vented his frustration over Russia-related matters with at least two other Republican senators this month, according to people familiar with the conversations — in addition to the president’s public admonishments of Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Jeff Flake.
Trump expressed frustration over a bipartisan bill sanctioning Russia and tried to convince Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that it wasn’t good policy, according to three people familiar with the call. Trump argued that the legislation was unconstitutional and said it would damage his presidency. Corker was unrelenting, these people said, and told Trump the bill was going to pass both houses with bipartisan support.
Trump dialed up Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on August 7, two days before a blunt call with the Senate majority leader that spilled over into a public feud. Tillis is working with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) on a bill designed to protect Robert Mueller, the independent counsel investigating the president’s Russia connections, from any attempt by Trump to fire him.
The Mueller bill came up during the Tillis-Trump conversation, according to a source briefed on the call — the latest signal of the president’s impatience with GOP senators’ increasing declarations of independence from his White House. Trump was unhappy with the legislation and didn’t want it to pass, one person familiar with the call said.
A Tillis spokesman confirmed the date of the senator’s call with the president and later described the call as “cordial,” saying other issues were discussed. A Corker spokeswoman described the late July conversation as a “productive conversation about the congressional review portion of the Russia sanctions bill.”
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said, “We do not comment on private conversations the president has with members of Congress. We are committed to working together on tax relief, border security, strengthening the military, and other important issues.” A separate statement from the White House press secretary Wednesday said that Trump and McConnell “will hold previously scheduled meetings following the August recess to discuss these critical items with members of the congressional leadership and the president’s Cabinet. White House and leadership staff are coordinating regarding the details of those meetings.”
The earlier, private calls offer more evidence of Trump’s uneasy relationship with congressional Republicans. Trump has angered McConnell with a damning critique of the Kentucky Republican’s performance on repealing Obamacare and threats to try to take out Flake (R-Ariz.) — a vocal Trump critic — in a Republican primary next year.
Trump’s chewing out of GOP senators, according to people briefed on the calls, reflected the president’s frustration that fellow Republicans would make moves that could damage him, particularly on an investigation that he detests. Trump also complained about the Russian sanctions measure in a call with McConnell earlier this month that devolved into shouting. The New York Times first reported that Trump discussed the Russia probe with McConnell.
“It seems he is just always focused on Russia,” one senior GOP aide said.
Since coming into the West Wing, chief of staff John Kelly has tried to curb Trump’s unscheduled interactions with legislators, senior administration officials say. Trump has been known to see a senator on TV or think about an issue and immediately ask White House assistant Madeleine Westerhout to dial the senator.
But Kelly has asked that senior White House aides, such as legislative affairs head Marc Short, be present for the calls‚ and for Trump to be briefed in advance on the topic.
No matter what Kelly does, Trump and the Senate GOP are in for a rough September, a month that’s shaping up as pivotal for his presidency. Along with his attacks on various Republican senators, Trump’s aides and advisers are touting polls that show Congress is more unpopular than Trump is — and that they’re prepared to run against the quintessential Washington institution.
Trump’s insistence on funding his long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall promises to further strain relations with Senate Republicans, who must secure at least eight Democratic votes to keep the government funded past Sept. 30. But the president appears unconcerned with helping McConnell navigate that challenge, declaring Tuesday night in Phoenix: “If we have to close down the government, we are going to build that wall.”
Any wall funding will almost certainly be a deal-breaker for Senate Democrats. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois underscored that with tweets Tuesday rejecting reports of a potential White House-initiated immigration deal involving border wall funding.
Democrats, aware of their leverage heading into next month’s talks on government funding, are urging McConnell and his GOP to ignore the president’s threat.
“There’s a big task in front of us that requires bipartisanship, and may require bucking the president, and that’s keeping the government funded,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “We saw back in April, when the White House was making threats on the wall, that Republicans ignored those threats. We need to have that happen again to avoid a disaster at the end of September.”
Several senior Senate Republicans gave a cold shoulder to Trump’s wall plans before leaving Washington for this month’s recess. They floated a $15 billion border security bill that emphasizes “smart, multi-layered infrastructure” — but not the president’s proposed physical barrier.
Still, Trump’s team is keeping up the pressure on the chamber that failed him on a Obamacare repeal effort. His campaign’s joint fundraising arm with the Republican National Committee launched an online appeal this week urging supporters to directly lobby the GOP Senate for a “down payment” on the wall.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pushed back Wednesday during an appearance in Oregon, declaring that “I don’t think anyone’s interested in having a shutdown. I don’t think it’s in our interest to do so.”
Trump and McConnell are expected to meet for the first time following the president’s jabs at the senator after this month’s recess.
“We have regular meetings, and the White House and members of the congressional leadership have been working on the next meetings after recess,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said by email. “But any scheduling announcements will come from the White House.”
McConnell’s office later released a statement that sidestepped Trump’s shutdown threat but declared their mutual commitment “to fund the government so we can advance our priorities in the short and long terms,” alongside tax reform, infrastructure funding, and other top priorities.
“The president and I, and our teams, have been and continue to be in regular contact about our shared goals,” McConnell said, before outlining the party’s agenda. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we are committed to advancing our shared agenda together and anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation.”