WASHINGTON – Donald Trump on Monday threw a life raft to the most unpopular Republican in Congress, publicly expressing his support for Mitch McConnell and pledging to ask his anti-establishment friends to leave the Senate leader alone.
Until Monday, the Senate majority leader's reputation as a canny tactician had taken a beating this year. Major legislation stalled. Critics from his own party called for his ouster. His approval rating was far below that of other congressional leaders from either party.
Then along came Trump on Monday, standing beside the Kentucky Republican in the Rose Garden, praising him as a leader who shares his agenda and pledging to ask McConnell's chief antagonist to lay off the Senate leader's GOP allies.
"We are probably now, at least as far as I'm concerned, closer than ever before," Trump said, declaring a friendship with McConnell that predates either man's life in politics. "The relationship is very good."
Trump has tweeted criticism at McConnell, but the president insisted Monday the two were tight and were "getting close" on a tax overhaul and a health care initiative, which has languished in the Senate.
Yet even as they parried questions from reporters, there was clearly an audience of one: former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who on Saturday declared a "season of war" against establishment Republicans and singled out McConnell, warning that he'd meet the same fate as the slain Roman leader Julius Caesar.
"We've cut your oxygen off, Mitch," threatened Bannon, now the executive chairman of the ultraconservative Breitbart News, at a gathering of conservatives in Washington.
Trump initially told reporters on Monday that he understood "where Steve Bannon is coming from" and shared his former aide's frustration with a recalcitrant Senate that hasn't enacted his agenda.
But after lunch at the White House with McConnell, Trump was on the Senate leader's side. Trump said he'd speak with Bannon about his strategy of backing primary challenges to Senate incumbents. Bannon declared victory in Alabama's Senate primary last month as his candidate, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, trounced McConnell's candidate, Sen. Luther Strange.
"Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing," Trump said before adding, "Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they're great people."
It appeared unlikely that Bannon would accept his former boss' counsel. Breitbart reported Monday that Bannon will attend an event Tuesday for Kelli Ward, a Republican who is challenging Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a top target of conservatives.