Republicans in Congress were seething Wednesday after a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence suggested to a gathering of GOP donors that the party's congressional majorities should be jettisoned in 2018 if that's what it takes to weed out members disloyal to President Trump.
Republican leaders quickly communicated their displeasure to the White House, warning that Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, was jeopardizing delicate tax reform negotiations by urging top GOP contributors to cut off incumbents and fund primary challengers in the mid-term if the effort isn't completed by year's end.
"I enjoy it when Republicans fight against Democrats more than when Republicans fight against other Republicans. I also think it's more constructive," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.
Ayers, an experienced Republican operative who must have known his comments were going to leak, said to donors attending a private Republican National Committee fundraiser in Washington that the party could sustain heavy losses in 2018 if Congress isn't more productive. But he said it might be worth it.
"Because look, if we're going to be in the minority again, we might as well have a minority who are with us as opposed to a minority who helped us become a minority," Ayers said, in remarks first reported by Politico but confirmed to the Washington Examiner by a GOP donor who was present.
The episode was another in the ongoing civil war that has enveloped the Republican Party, with the Trump and his allies inside and outside of official Washington on one side, and Republicans in Congress and their adherents on the other.
It was sure to contribute to the lack of trust between the president and congressional Republicans that has hampered their ability to deliver on the biggest promises from the 2016 campaign — repealing and replacement of Obamacare chief among them.
That Pence is in the middle of the infighting is rare. The vice president, a former congressman, has close ties to Republicans on Capitol Hill. He lunches with Senate Republicans most weeks and Trump usually tasks him with rounding up votes on major legislation.
Granted anonymity, senior Republican congressional aides accused Ayers of scapegoating congressional Republicans' difficulties to cover for Pence, who twice failed to whip enough votes to pass an Obamacare repeal bill in the Senate.
"The chief of staff to the vice president of the United States of America seemed almost more giddy at our failures than our successes," a GOP Senate aide said. "For anyone who cares about tax reform done, that should worry them."
Pence's press secretary did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, neither did the RNC.
Trump has been frustrated with congressional Republicans. He blames them for flubbing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law, and chafes at resistance to his leadership that emanates both from centrists and conservatives.
The feeling is mutual.
Republican voters share Trump's disenchantment with the GOP-led Congress, and many Republicans on the Hill believe the president has stoked that dissatisfaction to cover for his own shortcomings. They argue that he hasn't done his part, as president, to help his agenda succeed.
Pence has managed to avoid getting wrapped up in these internal fights, maintaining strong relationships with Republicans in Congress even as Trump berates them on Twitter. That could change if the vice president doesn't smooth things over after Ayers' comments.
Republican insiders worried that the congressional majorities could fall to the Democrats in 2018 accused Ayers of furthering a White House strategy of protecting both Trump's 2020 viability and Pence's strength as his presumed Republican successor.
Some Republicans speculate that Trump and Pence might prefer that Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, because it would provide them a more convenient foil and ease the path to re-election two years later.
Scott Jennings, a Republican operative in Kentucky who is an ally of Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and worked in President George W. Bush's White House political office, said he was sympathetic to the grievances expressed by the Trump administration.
But Jennings indicated that this White House's strategy for cajoling more results out of the Republican Congress isn't going to work, and might make matters worse.
"Who has attacked the president on domestic and foreign policy? Who has voted against his desired legislation? I think if we are going to talk to donors about who is and isn't helping Trump pass bills, we ought to use the publicly available data which makes it pretty darn obvious," Jennings said in an email exchange. "McConnell's votes and statements are on the right side of the ledger, while several others are on the wrong side."