President Trump's relationship with Republicans in Congress, brittle to begin with, is disintegrating in public over a deep lack of trust and impatience that has infected both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Trump, frustrated with the pace of business on Capitol Hill, suggested to reporters on Thursday an openness to seeing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ousted if he can't deliver healthcare reform, an overhaul of the U.S. tax code, and infrastructure spending.
McConnell's allies responded in force, saying the leader has done better than anyone else would have navigating a difficult political environment made even more challenging by a novice president whose bluster and ignorance has complicated Republicans' ability to pass big-ticket legislation.
"The problem for Trump is that there is nobody that is going to challenge Mitch McConnell in the conference," said a Republican operative and Capitol Hill veteran. "Trump has an ‘R' next to his name, but he's not a Republican; there's no loyalty."
Trump's style has been to criticize Congressional Republicans as though he were separate from them, rather than to embrace his role as the leader of the Republican Party and discuss their legislative goals, successes and failures, as shared.
That has rankled Republicans already unhappy with what in their view is a president who has squandered the bully pulpit over an obsession with a Russia investigation he claims is fake — and protecting his personal brand — and declined to invest his political capital in replacing Obamacare.
Trump's voting base is so far siding with him. According to a new poll from CNN, 68 percent judge the GOP-controlled Congress to be a failure and Republicans themselves are split on the question. Republican approval of the party's congressional leadership has fallen from 75 percent in January to just 39 percent now. But Trump isn't doing himself any favors in winning the kind of support he would need to have more influence on Capitol Hill.
In 2002, President George W. Bush engineered the ouster of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., over insensitive remarks he made about race, and had him replaced with Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Bush was able to pull that off because his approval ratings were high, but also because Republicans on the Hill trusted him, and felt that he had their back.
"There was a huge trust level with Bush," a GOP operative said, recalling the episode. "He helped Senate Republicans gain back the Senate majority by campaigning in battleground states and then he pushed Lott out right after the election. Trump wouldn't travel and campaign for healthcare reform in red states with Democrats, like North Dakota and West Virginia."
To wit, Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose panel is going to write tax reform legislation in the Senate, tweeted out his support for McConnell soon after Trump capped a day of haranguing the leader on Twitter with critical comments to the White House reporters covering him at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is vacationing.
"@SenateMajLdr has been the best leader we've had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him," Hatch said.
The spat, brewing for several days since Senate Republicans failed to secure enough votes to move legislation to partially repeal Obamacare and McConnell pulled the plug on the effort, spilled out into the open with the leader's comments to a local Rotary Club back in Kentucky.
Republicans close to McConnell presume that he didn't really intend to spark a brushfire with comments that could be interpreted as questioning the president's competence. Rather, as the consummate insider he is, McConnell was probably just explaining the challenges of legislating complicated policies under conditions where he has little room to maneuver.
"Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before," McConnell said, according to CNN affiliate WCPO. "I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process."
Trump has never served in elected office before, and Republicans for months have used the excuse to explain the chaos at the White House and the difficulties the president has had negotiating with Congress.
The hope is that his hiring of retired Marine Corps General and former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as chief of staff will solve some of these problems and make Trump more effective.
"It's eight months into an administration that, by all intents and purposes — everybody admits this — a unique administration that really a lot of people didn't think would win," Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, said. "So, this is a time frame that you can't really fairly measure against previous senators or governors who've been in the Oval Office."
Trump isn't taking kindly to the backhanded compliments. He's spent the last 48 hours beating up on McConnell on Twitter, and expanding on his thoughts with reporters.
However, he did endorse a McConnell ally, appointed Sen. Luther Strange, in the special Senate election in Alabama to decide who serves the remainder of the term vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done," the president tweeted Thursday, later urging the majority leader to "get back to work." Asked later if he wanted McConnell to step down, Trump said:
"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."