Trump claims he and McConnell are ‘closer than ever before,’ despite Bannon’s primary war

WASHINGTON --  President Donald Trump said Monday he feels "closer than ever before" to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man he's publicly criticized for his handling of the GOP agenda and on whom the President is relying for getting a legislative accomplishment in the first year of his term.

"We have been friends for a long time," Trump said from the White House Rose Garden with the Kentucky Republican at his side. "We are probably now, despite what we read, we are probably now, I think, at least as far as I am concerned, we are closer than ever before and the relationship is very good. We are fighting for the same thing, we are fighting for lower taxes, big tax cuts, the biggest tax cuts in the history of our nation. We are fighting for tax reform as part of that."

Trump's comments followed a lunch meeting with McConnell, and come after the President's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has pledged to wage a war on the Republican establishment and cited the Senate majority leader by name.

Trump said that he would try to talk Bannon out of declaring war on "some" of his primary targets saying, "I'm going to see if we can talk him out of that, because I think they're great people."

McConnell responded to Bannon's criticism by citing past Republican primary challengers who failed to make it into the Senate and stressing his relationship to Trump.

"We are together totally on this agenda to move America forward," McConnell said.

Just before sitting down to lunch with McConnell earlier Monday, Trump said he understands the frustration behind Bannon's mission.

"We are not getting the job done," Trump said after a reporter asked him about comments Bannon made at the Value Voters Summit in Washington on Saturday. "And I am not going to blame myself, they are not getting the job done. We had health care approved, and then you had the surprise vote by John McCain. We have had other things happen and they are not getting the job done and I can understand where Steve Bannon is coming from."

The Trump-McConnell meeting comes as pressure on the Senate intensifies to pass tax cuts and give Trump at least one major legislative victory before the end of the year. The Senate will move this week to pass a budget, the first step in its effort to overhaul the tax code.

On Saturday, Bannon further grilled the GOP establishment and called out McConnell by name.

"It's not my war, this is our war and y'all didn't start it, the establishment started it," Bannon said.

He added, "Right now, it's a season of war against a GOP establishment."

McConnell and Trump's relationship has been fraught ever since the Senate failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in July. Over the August recess, Trump publicly bemoaned McConnell's leadership.

Trump successfully ran for president by demeaning his enemies and rallying his base to deride his opponents. Those habits have followed him to the White House, and McConnell has regularly been that punching bag.

"Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done," Trump tweeted in August. "Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!"

McConnell has declined to publicly respond directly to the President, instead telling reporters that he isn't a fan of the "daily tweets."

"I've been pretty candid with him and all of you that I'm not a fan of the daily tweets," he said earlier this year.

Trump's own aides, many of whom are tasked with working with Congress to turn Trump's campaign promises into legislation, have privately lamented that the President's attacks against members of his own party -- most importantly McConnell -- have made it more difficult to win over skeptical lawmakers.

Last week, some conservative outside groups, including the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, called on McConnell and other leaders in the Senate to step aside.

Even rank-and-file members say that McConnell's in a tough position if he cannot find a way to convince a majority of Senate Republicans to back a tax cut proposal. McConnell can only lose two Republican senators and still pass a bill.

"If we don't cut taxes and we don't eventually repeal and replace Obamacare, then we're going to lose across the board in the House in 2018. And all of my colleagues running in primaries in 2018 will probably get beat," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CBS' "Face the Nation" over the weekend. "It will be the end of Mitch McConnell as we know it."