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McConnell, in Private, Doubts if Trump Can Save Presidency

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at a news conference at the Capitol Building in Washington, April 4, 2017. The relationship between President Trump and Sen. McConnell has disintegrated to the point that the men are no longer on speaking terms. - GABRIELLA DEMCZUK/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at a news conference at the Capitol Building in Washington, April 4, 2017. The relationship between President Trump and Sen. McConnell has disintegrated to the point that the men are no longer on speaking terms.

By ALEXANDER BURNS and JONATHAN MARTIN
© 2017 New York Times News Service

The relationship between President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.

What was once an uneasy governing alliance has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility, complicated by the position of McConnell’s wife, Elaine L. Chao, in Trump’s Cabinet, according to more than a dozen people briefed on their imperiled partnership. Angry phone calls and private badmouthing have devolved into open conflict, with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him, and McConnell mobilizing to their defense.

The rupture between Trump and McConnell comes at a highly perilous moment for Republicans, who face a number of urgent deadlines when they return to Washington next month. Congress must approve new spending measures and raise the statutory limit on government borrowing within weeks of reconvening, and Republicans are hoping to push through an elaborate rewrite of the federal tax code.

A protracted government shutdown or a default on sovereign debt could be disastrous — for the economy and for the party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Yet Trump and McConnell are locked in a political cold war. Neither man would comment for this story.

There are few recent precedents for the rift. The last time a president turned on a legislative leader of his own party was in 2002, when allies of George W. Bush helped force Trent Lott to step down as Senate minority leader after racially charged remarks at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

For the moment, McConnell appears to be far more secure in his position, and perhaps immune to coercion from the White House. Republicans are unlikely to lose control of the Senate in 2018, and Trump has no allies in the Senate who have shown an appetite for combat with McConnell.

McConnell’s allies warn that the president should be wary of doing anything that could jeopardize the Senate Republican majority.

“The quickest way for him to get impeached is for Trump to knock off Jeff Flake and Dean Heller and be faced with a Democrat-led Senate,” said Billy Piper, a lobbyist and former McConnell chief of staff.