White House Tepid on GOP Leaders After Bannon ‘War’ Declaration

Sanders: Trump is committed to working with Ryan, McConnell ‘at this point’

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Speaker Paul D. Ryan as Vice President Mike Pence looks on at the GOP Congressional retreat in Philadelphia on Jan. 26. Those were warmer days for the Republicans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The White House on Monday offered a lukewarm defense of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after President Donald Trump’s former top strategist said he is going to war with them.

Trump is “committed” to working with the current crop of congressional GOP leaders, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday. But then, rather than saying the GOP leaders and the president share a conservative policy agenda or otherwise defending them, she merely added that she had “nothing beyond that — at this point.”

Sanders was pressed multiple times during her daily press briefing about an explosive interview that aired Sunday evening featuring former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

He told CBS’s Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” that the so-called “Republican establishment” is actively “trying to nullify the 2016 election — that’s a brutal fact we have to face.”

When pressed by Rose to name names, Bannon pointed right at Ryan and McConnell.

“I think Mitch McConnell, and to a degree, Paul Ryan,” he said. “They do not want Donald Trump's populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented. It’s very obvious. … It’s obvious as night follows day.”

Bannon is back as the head of the conservative Breitbart News Network, and made clear that while he has no plans to use the popular site to criticize Trump, he will not hold fire on McConnell and Ryan.

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“Now that you're out of the White House,” Rose asked as one point, “you’re going to war with them?”

Bannon replied without hesitation: “Absolutely.”

To the ever-combative Bannon — who described himself during the “60 Minute” interview as a “street fighter” — McConnell and Ryan must be closely scrutinized by Trump’s allies if the president is going to enact his agenda, which as Bannon noted is not a clearly conservative one.

“They’re not going to help you unless they’re put on notice. They’re going to be held accountable if they do not support the President of the United States,” Bannon said. “Right now, there’s no accountability. … They do not support the president's program. It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill. Everybody in this city knows it.”

To be sure, Trump himself has gone directly after the House and Senate GOP leaders.

On Aug. 24, the president used Twitter to slam Ryan and McConnell, saying they created a debt ceiling mess by refusing his advice.

The president wrote that he suggested to Ryan and McConnell that they attach a measure addressing the country’s borrowing limit to a just-passed veterans bill, which Trump said would have ensured “easy approval.”

In a second tweet, Trump criticized the GOP leaders for not tying the debt ceiling to the veterans bill, saying their refusal means “now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy — now a mess!”

That tweet came a day after Ryan had pushed back on Trump’s since-taken back threat to shut down the government unless he gets money for his proposed southern border wall.

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Bannon’s sharp words and Sanders’ tepid ones again are shining a light on the ill-will and distrust fueling much of the Republican disunity that has left it without a major legislative accomplishment during Trump’s seven-month tenure while controlling both chambers on the Hill and the White House.

To Bannon, Ryan and McConnell embody “the swamp,” as Trump called professional Washington, D.C., during his unprecedented 2016 presidential campaign.

“The permanent political class, as represented by both parties,” Bannon said when asked by Rose to define “the swamp.”

“You're not going to drain that in eight months,” he said. “You're not going to drain it in two terms. This is going to take 10, 15, 20 years of relentlessly going after it.”

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