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How The Trump-McConnell Rift Could Affect Tax Policy


President Trump has not held back when talking about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He slammed the Kentucky Republican on Twitter, writing, quote, "can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed repeal and replace for seven years, couldn't get it done?" And Trump tried more subtle digs, like this one on Tuesday night.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have to get rid of what's called the filibuster rule. We have to. And if we don't, the Republicans will never get anything passed. You're wasting your time.

CHANG: Looks like the feud between Trump and McConnell has reportedly reached new lows. The New York Times wrote recently that a phone call between the two men ended in a profane shouting match. But what does Trump risk by going after a powerful member of his own party? We decided to call up someone who knows Senator McConnell very well. G. Hunter Bates is his former chief of staff and is now a partner at the lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Good morning.

G. HUNTER BATES: Good morning, Ailsa.

CHANG: So the reality is both of these men need each other to get their legislative agendas done. What do you think President Trump risks by publicly ripping into McConnell like this?

BATES: Well, you know, my sense, Ailsa, is that a lot of this talk about the conflict threatening the Republican agenda is overblown.

CHANG: Oh, how so?

BATES: I don't think people at the end of the day are interested in whether the president and the majority leader are golfing in New Jersey or vacationing at Mar-a-Lago. I think what people care about is that the president and the leader will be working together this fall to address the debt ceiling, fund the government and then ultimately launch a once-in-a-generation debate on tax reform. I think that's - the critical point is that while these two men may have different styles and they may disagree from time to time on tweets or timing or tactics, they agree on 95 percent of the Republican agenda. And I think that's really the overriding point here.

CHANG: What about funding the government? I mean, Trump's already threatening a government shutdown over border wall funding, whereas I know McConnell has continually said he has no interest in presiding over another government shutdown.

BATES: Well, I think that will be part of a negotiation that's going to be going on for the next several weeks, between now and September 30. I think that Speaker Ryan, Leader McConnell, the Republicans in the House and the Senate and then the White House are going to be working together. And these are negotiations, they happen on a regular basis. The president has made his priorities very clear. And I think the Congress will do everything they can to implement as many of those priorities as they can.

CHANG: Now, you worked for McConnell for many years. And I'm just curious, when you're observing him now, what do you glean is his strategy in dealing with this particular president?

BATES: Look? I think the thing about McConnell that's remarkable over the course of his career is that he really doesn't change. Regardless of what the climate is or what the circumstances are. He's a guy who is known for his extraordinary focus? And he's been successful in politics because he outworks and outhustles and outthinks and outmaneuvers his opposition and never gets too worked up about anything. And so I think at the end of the day, McConnell gets up every morning and comes to work like he always has and is not to, you know - I don't think the circumstances or the climate affects him a whole lot. And I think that's been part of his key to his longevity and his success.

CHANG: So you don't think this back and forth tit-for-tat that's been happening has any effect on keeping this party unified in tackling that huge pile of items you ticked off earlier? No effect at all?

BATES: Well, William Blake famously wrote, without conflict, there is no progress. And I think obviously when you've got two leaders who have different styles, there's going to be conflict from time to time - different styles and different backgrounds. But at the end of the day, I think these two men are going to continue to lead their party, along with Speaker Ryan and others in the Congress. So again, I feel like the idea that any conflict here is derailing the agenda is overblown. I think that they've been working together for the last seven months on tax reform.

When we look at tax reform, the administration and Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan and the chairman of the Finance Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, they've been meeting for months now on an almost weekly basis working on tax reform. And this past week, on Monday, Secretary Mnuchin and Leader McConnell were standing side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder in Louisville, Ky., at a large event talking about tax reform.

And when you listen to them and you looked at them, you could see there was no daylight between the two men. And these were - this was an administration and a Senate leadership that are 100 percent in agreement in their agreement on policy, their agreement on process, agreement on politics when it comes to tax reform. And I think that's more what we're going to see.

CHANG: So what's interesting to me here is you - we do have two men with very different styles, the bombastic Trump on one hand and the quiet, steely power in McConnell. How do those two men work with those two different styles? Really quickly in the few seconds we have left.

BATES: Yeah. Look. President Trump was elected in part because of his style. People wanted to shake up Washington. And so I think, you know, he provides some of the fire and fury. And I think McConnell provides a lot of stability and experience and instincts. So I think the two together ultimately will pull this off.

CHANG: G. Hunter Bates served as chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell. Thank you so much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this interview, a line from poet William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is misstated. Blake wrote "without contraries is no progression," not "without conflict, there is no progress."] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 23, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
During this interview, a line from poet William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is misstated. Blake wrote "without contraries is no progression," not "without conflict, there is no progress."
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