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McConnell Is Trump's Latter-Day Ed Koch

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If we lived in a different world, the joke could begin in a familiar, guy-goes-into-a-bar way: “So the president walks into a convention center in Phoenix and …”

But this is the Trump era. Only slices of White House life are just comic. Much more of what the president serves up to American voters, legislators, policymakers and the rest of the world routinely smacks, at best, of the tragicomic.

(Related: Health Bill May Shut Out One-Sixth of Sick: CBO)

The president’s speech on Tuesday night in Phoenix is just the latest case in point. It had the requisite elements of vaudevillian propaganda (he accused CNN of not broadcasting his speeches as he spoke into a CNN camera broadcasting his speech); damaging cant (he misrepresented his statements following this month’s neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, to repackage himself as the morally sensitive leader he isn’t); flagrant lies (he hasn’t obtained a “historic increase” in military spending), and saber-rattling (he threatened to shut down the federal government unless Congress funds his Great Border Wall).

Trump’s Phoenix rantathon also deployed personal broadsides against two members of his own party who are also Arizona’s senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake. He slammed McCain for not supporting a Senate effort to repeal and replace Obamacare and he dismissed Flake as a nonentity (“Nobody knows who the hell he is”).

Pounding on McCain and Flake lacks political decorum, of course, and the shabbiness of it is only enhanced by the fact that McCain is struggling with brain cancer. And Trump, who managed to secure five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, once questioned whether McCain, who spent more than five years in a Vietnamese prison, was a war hero.

But beyond Trump’s seediness looms the larger issue of why he habitually attacks natural allies, even when contrary to his own self-interest.

Remember, Trump’s trolling of McCain and Flake is far less perilous to his legislative agenda than taking on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Yet our man is fearless. He’s been trying to slap McConnell around so much of late that the two men stopped talking for weeks. The New York Times’s Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin reported this week that the acrimony between Trump and McConnell “has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility.” McConnell, a wily political technician who is not to be trifled with, apparently doubts that “Trump will be able to salvage his administration.”

Chessboard (Image: Thinkstock)

(Image: Thinkstock)

You’d expect Trump to do all that he can to reel in McConnell. The majority leader holds sway over various Senate committees that Trump needs for such things as re-engineering the tax code or keeping fallout under wraps from various investigations into links to Russia.

Yet Trump, after bungling his own role in the Obamacare debacle, found it simpler to blame McConnell than to take responsibility himself. He’s been on the warpath with McConnell ever since, so focused on avoiding blame for a losing effort around one piece of legislation — health care — that he’s willing to jeopardize the rest of his White House stay.

This, as it always does with Trump, follows a pattern. Back in the late 1980s, Trump was trying to build a mega-development on the west side of Manhattan. He blew the deal in part because he got into a needless public brawl with the mayor of New York at the time, Ed Koch.

I wrote a column about that episode during the presidential primaries — in January 2016 — as evidence that Trump simply wasn’t the great dealmaker portrayed by him and his campaign. But the collapse of the West Side Yards deal — a project that would have rivaled Rockefeller Center in scale and would have launched Trump into the top tier of New York developers — also foreshadowed Trump’s difficulties with McConnell.

Trump needed Koch’s support to get zoning approval and tax abatements for the West Side Yards. Plans for the property included a rocket-shaped skyscraper that would have been the world’s tallest building, as well as vast amounts of residential and commercial space.

But Trump antagonized local residents, planning boards and Koch, raising the ante every time he didn’t get exactly what he wanted and publicly accusing Koch of “ludicrous and disgraceful behavior.” Koch, noting that he thought Trump was being “piggy, piggy, piggy,” warned the young developer not to try to “influence the process through intimidation.”

Trump kept jousting, however, and the Yards project stagnated. Trump ultimately couldn’t afford to carry the property while waiting out City Hall, and as his financial problems worsened in the early 1990s he was forced to sell it to Hong Kong developers.

Had Trump been patient and methodical, had he been interested in outcomes as much as he was interested in being seen as the winner at center stage, he might have done better with the Yards.

That’s not who the president is, though.

He doesn’t build strong teams, doesn’t cultivate sophisticated partnerships and doesn’t do his homework. Instead, he stays locked on fostering his own celebrity and guarding against any perceptions that he’s not a “winner.”

Trump the Developer was so focused on besting Ed Koch and doing things his way that he let a promising development slip from his grasp. Trump the President is so focused on besting Mitch McConnell that he runs the risk of alienating a legislative body that could otherwise help him craft a political legacy and protect him from folks like Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trumpworld’s links to Russia.

As I’ve noted before, however, Trump doesn’t care about outcomes. He has his money and the whole world’s bounteous attention. As long as he has those things, he’s willing to forfeit more enduring accomplishments while he fosters the illusion of personal strength. By that standard, defeats feel like triumphs, achievements leave him cold and allies are a waste of time.

— Read Aon Hewitt: Health Price Pressure Mounts on ThinkAdvisor.

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