WASHINGTON Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, says he could live without the drama surrounding President Donald Trump's White House, but from a policy standpoint sees the new commander-in-chief as a solid ally in the mode of any president from his party.
McConnell told Reuters that he finds Trump accessible and that they talk regularly, even more frequently than he spoke to the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
While McConnell would not discuss the substance of their conversations, he said the two are able to be frank with one another without it damaging their relationship.
“We have a good relationship. He’s never, as far as I can tell, gotten angry at me - in my presence, anyway. We have a good working relationship,” McConnell said during a roundtable with Reuters reporters on Wednesday.
McConnell, who last week said he hoped to see "less drama" from the White House, said that Trump does not always take his advice.
"He knows, as you all know, that I’ve not been a fan of the tweets and the extracurricular comments. I said last week we could do with a little less drama," McConnell said.
Cracking a grin, he added, "The reason I’m smiling - obviously, he’s disinclined to take my advice on some things. But it has not impaired the ability to communicate and convey my opinion, which I do frequently."
In matters of style, McConnell and Trump are a study in contrasts.
The Senate majority leader is a taciturn traditionalist steeped in the ways of Washington, after more than three decades in Congress. Trump, a real estate magnate and reality TV celebrity who had never held public office until he assumed the presidency in January, airs his views regularly on Twitter and has vowed to drain what he calls the "swamp" of the U.S. capital.
McConnell declined to say if he had advised Trump to speak less about the controversy dogging the administration: questions about whether associates of Trump colluded with alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and concerns about Trump's abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey as the agency was probing the Russia matter.
On questions concerning Russia, McConnell stuck to his script. "I think all of that is going to be handled by the special counsel and the Senate intelligence committee, and I'm confident in their ability to do the job," he said, referring to a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department last week, and to one of several congressional panels probing the Russia issue.
Some Republican lawmakers and lobbyists worry the issue will slow legislative plans. Republicans have yet to chalk up significant legislative achievements despite being in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
But McConnell said he and Trump are aligned in putting an overhaul of Obamacare and a rewrite of the tax code at the top of their agenda.
TRUMP AS A REPUBLICAN
McConnell acknowledged there had been doubts within his party during the 2016 campaign about what Trump would do in the White House.
"This was a guy who was giving fund-raisers for (Senate Democratic leader) Chuck Schumer four or five years ago," McConnell said.
But McConnell, whose wife Elaine Chao is a member of Trump's cabinet as transportation secretary, said he sees Trump as someone who has embraced Republican orthodoxy.
"In other words, what the administration is doing, not only am I comfortable with it, but I think the vast majority of Republicans in Congress feel that this is a right-of-centre presidency, which is what we had hoped" for, he said.
"If you look at what the president is actually for, it strikes me as indistinguishable from what a President Jeb Bush or a President Marco Rubio would have been advocating: deregulation, tax reform, repeal and replace of Obamacare, judges like Neil Gorsuch," McConnell said.
Trump's relationship with Congress has been boosted by the frequent and "very significant" presence of Vice President Mike Pence in the halls of Capitol Hill, McConnell said, describing Pence's role as "serious value-added."
"He is, in my view, kind of the de facto congressional relations guy for the administration," he said, noting Pence, a former Indiana governor and Republican congressman, has strong relationships on the Hill.
McConnell described Pence as playing a similar role with Congress as Vice President Dick Cheney did during the George W. Bush administration: listening and sometimes weighing in on discussions about healthcare and tax reform.
"It’s been really helpful because members feel like they can go over and whisper in his ear about whatever their particular problem is, and something will be done about it, because they’ve kind of elevated it to a higher level," McConnell said.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Patricia Zengerle, Amanda Becker, Andy Sullivan and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Frances Kerry and Caren Bohan)