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President Trump Says The Republican Party Is United. Is It?


It's tax time. Nah, we're many months away from April 15, but President Trump is pushing full speed ahead with his effort to overhaul the tax code and cut tax rates. Today, he's going to deliver what's being pegged as a, quote, "major policy speech" at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In order to get a tax plan through Congress, President Trump is going to need the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Yesterday, the two put on a show of unity at the White House.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Republican Party is very, very unified.

MARTIN: Hours earlier, though, the president noted frustration with some members of the GOP and offered support to his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is waging a political war against McConnell.


TRUMP: You had a few people that really disappointed us. They really, really disappointed us, so I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels.

MARTIN: All right, we are joined now by NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, there - quite the whiplash.

MARTIN: Right? What do you make of this? The - one minute, the president says the Senate GOP failed and he understands Bannon is doing what he's doing. The next minute, he says the Republican Party is unified. It's all fine, we're great.

MONTANARO: Well, you never quite know what to expect from this president. I mean, one minute, yesterday, you could be writing a headline that says, President Trump appears to back Bannon effort to take out sitting Republican senators. And then an hour later, you have Trump meeting with Mitch McConnell, the main person who Steve Bannon is looking to target for someone who would want to primary him. And then that headline an hour later would read, President Trump wary of Bannon effort, vows to talk him out of it.

So, you know, the truth is, really, for Trump, it's all personal. You know, they have most of the votes, Republicans, for things like health care repeal and replace for Obamacare and a tax overhaul. But they're not quite there yet. And if Bannon's effort shoot could lead to, you know, one or two other votes, then fine, the president would think. But McConnell - you know, something of a bloodless political operator - laid it out yesterday pretty well, saying, the objective is winning. Winners legislate, losers go home.

MARTIN: Right, and basically, the president needs both of them, to some degree - Steve Bannon and Mitch McConnell. But on the McConnell front, yesterday, I mean, they took such great pains to say, we are such good friends. We've been good friends for a long time. Do you think their relationship is as good as they tried to make it sound?

MONTANARO: No. I mean, you know, it's an inconvenient necessity for both men. You know, you couldn't have two people who are less alike. You know, one is showy and boastful. The other, you know - pretty reserved, prefers to work behind the scenes. But they need each other.

You know, like you said, Trump's frustrated with the lack of progress out of Congress, and he's already showed he's willing to go a different way, maybe even work with Democrats, if McConnell can't deliver.

MARTIN: How much of what the president does is about protecting his own brand?

MONTANARO: It's a good question. You know, I think Trump is all about his brand. This is what he's made his entire life on. You know, most of his wealth, for example, is wrapped up in how much you value that brand, and he's willing to push anyone aside who might interfere with that.

You know, you saw that from this president on health care just last week. Just when Democrats thought he'd work with them, he turned around and cut off subsidies in an effort to kind of make them cry uncle. And then he appears with McConnell in the Rose Garden. So, look, he wants to forge his own path - the Trump path.

And you saw a little bit of that with President Obama when he was president, where Democrats didn't always feel like he was completely on board, and you didn't see the Obama brand transfer to Democrats as seamlessly as they would've liked. And the Trump brand probably doesn't transfer as seamlessly to Republicans.

MARTIN: I want to play another bit of tape from the president's appearance in the Rose Garden yesterday. In this one, he's talking about making calls to the family of fallen service members. Let's listen.


TRUMP: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls. I like to call when it's appropriate.

MARTIN: For the record, other presidents have made these calls, right?

MONTANARO: They have. And two fact checks on this - President Trump didn't say that he had made calls, actually. He went on to say that he was writing a letter and that he was going to be sending those letters, and it hadn't been that he'd already contacted them. He was only talking about this because a reporter had asked him about a military effort that had gone badly.

And a former Obama official actually said this to our White House correspondent Tamara Keith - said President Trump's claim is wrong; President Obama engaged families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through calls, letters, visits to Section 60 at Arlington, the cemetery, visits to Walter Reed, visits to Dover and regular meetings with gold star families at the White House and across the country.

MARTIN: It does illustrate the point that the president can't help himself sometimes - is always trying these comparisons, sometimes unnecessarily. I want to point out another rift on display last night. Senator John McCain spoke at an event in Philadelphia.

And in his remarks, he warned against - and I'm quoting here - "some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems," which is quite a quote. Let's play a little bit more of what he said.


JOHN MCCAIN: We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.

MARTIN: A not-so-veiled critique, there, of the president, do you think?

MONTANARO: No, not at all. And this is, you know, John McCain, who definitely believes in a more interventionist strategy than President Trump does, but also someone who's been steeped in military history - understands that, after World War II, the United States was the principal security blanket, really, for the entire world to be able to rebuild after World War II, to - and we are definitely in a different time now. And this is something that a lot of people are concerned about with President Trump, including people like John McCain, who see the United States going a different direction.

MARTIN: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro this morning. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.