McConnell told Trump privately: Bannon's primary challengers could wreck your agenda

Ah, so that explains that curious bro-hug press conference. Earlier in the day, Trump went so far as to say he could understand where Steve Bannon was coming from in wanting to primary Senate Republicans. A few hours later, apparently after meeting with McConnell, he was at the podium outside the White House claiming that he’d try to talk Bannon out of launching primary challenges to certain Republicans. Now we know why.

Mitch McConnell, Trump whisperer.

There’s truth to McConnell’s argument too, as I noted last night. Bannon’s effort to run populists against Senate GOPers presents two risks to Trump. The obvious one is that they’ll win their primaries but lose their general elections to Democrats. (Cough cough cough.) The less obvious one is that they’ll win their general elections and end up in the Senate as a new voting bloc that professes loyalty to Trump but ends up obstructing him when he tries to make deals with Democrats.

The Kentucky Republican communicated his warning during a private lunch with the president at the White House, sources tell the Washington Examiner.

McConnell emphasized that Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, was undermining the president’s agenda with plans to recruit and finance primary challenges against Republicans who are some of his most reliable supporters in the Senate. McConnell might have made some headway…

Bannon’s top targets include Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming; Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Barrasso and Wicker vote with Trump 96 percent of the time. Fischer sides with the president 92 percent of the time, according to tracking from FiveThirtyEight…

Bannon’s approach “would be exactly what someone would do if their only goal was to derail the Trump agenda and drain the resources of the Republican Party,” one GOP insider said.

The sobering lesson of the Alabama Senate runoff for Trump was that the base (in red states at least) values anti-establishmentarianism more highly than it does Trump’s personal endorsement. Moore ran against Washington; Trump, who ran against Washington last year, endorsed Luther Strange. Moore won. A Senator Roy Moore would need to bear that in mind whenever Trump lurches to the middle and tries to compromise with Schumer and Pelosi. Who’s more likely to support a DREAM deal, Moore or Strange? Jeff Flake or Kelli Ward? Barrasso and Deb Fischer or some random nationalist candidates? Remember, although Trump frequently aligns with populists, he’s not technically a populist himself. He’s a Trumpist, which means he wants whatever his position happens to be at a given moment, and those positions (a la DACA and DREAM) aren’t always populist. More than anything he wants some legislative wins and a Congress that’ll deliver for him. That’s why it made sense for him to support Strange over Moore. Strange will do his bidding reliably, Moore won’t.

That’s what McConnell tried to press upon him yesterday, I think, and he may have succeeded to some extent. Although a few GOP senators like Corker, Flake, and Sasse shoot off their mouths regularly in criticizing Trump, even they’re reliable voters for the president’s agenda. The rest of the caucus not only votes with the White House but mutes its criticism of Trump for fear of antagonizing the base. By and large there have been four “problem” senators — Collins, Murkowski, McCain, and Rand Paul, who’s now threatening to vote no on the Senate’s budget, of course. Trump’s misfortune is that not one of them is up for reelection in 2018. He can replace Flake with Ward or Strange with Moore but there’s no reason necessarily to think that’ll net him more votes on key legislation. On the contrary.

It’s not just Bannon who’s using Senate Republicans as a whipping boy, though. This is unexpected:

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) late Monday took aim at Senate Republicans during a local GOP dinner in Indiana.

“We have 286 bills sitting in the Senate. We have to break that logjam,” McCarthy told a dinner hosted by the Allen County Republican Party, according to The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne.

“But if you’re not strong enough to say you’re going to repeal ObamaCare and then vote that way, you don’t deserve to stay in the office.”

Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan’s right-hand man, tacitly encouraging the Bannon primary push by saying Senate incumbents maybe deserve to lose? I understand his frustration and how useful it is to House Republicans for right-wing populists to be laser-focused on McConnell and his caucus, but McCarthy’s life isn’t going to get easier with a bunch of Roy Moores in the Senate. Again, on the contrary.

Here’s former Rep. David Jolly, a centrist Republican, telling MSNBC that it might be better for the country if Democrats … took back the House next fall. If you believe CNN’s polling, which has the Dems up a whopping 14 points on the generic ballot today, that’s an increasingly likely possibility. Trump might enjoy it in some ways too: An infrastructure bill would be easier to pass with Pelosi in charge of the House than Ryan, for instance. There’s just one teensy matter of concern in having Democrats in charge of the lower chamber…