The dynamic between President Trump and Mitch McConnell

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," October 16, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.



JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS: Mr. President, do you approve of Steve Bannon's war on Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are not getting the job done, and I'm not going to blame myself, I'll be honest.

My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY: We are together totally on this agenda.

BANNON: Right now it's a season of war against a GOP establishment.

TRUMP: Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk him out of that because, frankly, they are great people.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Extraordinary in the Rose Garden today, a news conference, impromptu news conference after an off the record lunch between President Trump and the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Pressed about Steve Bannon and his efforts on the outside to take out Republican establishment on the inside, the Senate majority leader stepped to the microphone again.


MCCONNELL: Back in 2010 and 2012, we nominated several candidates, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They are not in the Senate. And the reason for that was that they were not able to appeal to a broader electorate in the general election. You have to nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home.


BAIER: Speaking of policy, we have a budget likely being voted on in the Senate this week. That sets the table for tax reform, maybe this year, maybe not.

Let's bring in our panel: Steve Hayes, editor in chief of The Weekly Standard; Mara Liasson, national political correspondent of National Public Radio, and syndicated radio host Buck Sexton, former CIA analyst.

Buck, let me start with you. It was interesting to see the dynamic between President Trump and the Senate majority leader. And they are at least talking like they are on the same sheet of music.

BUCK SEXTON, SYNDICATED RADIO HOST: McConnell even borrowed what seemed like Trumpian rhetoric there. Winners get to make policy, losers go home - - it seems like maybe he's even adopting some Trump-esque verbiage, rhetoric. And so I think what you're going to see continue to play out here is that Trump understands that he has to get people to work with him to get the agenda done.

I think that Trump has realized at this point in time and a good cop, bad cop approach, and maybe in this case you can look at Steve Bannon as the bad cop, will be effective, that he has to actually have both carrots and sticks here. And so that's what I see playing out right now with this administration. I think that's the main dynamic at work, that they need to get something on the board. McConnell has to be part of that process, and so that's where this is going to go.

BAIER: Mara?

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I have no idea where this is going to go because he said one thing in the cabinet meeting and then he came out of the Rose Garden and seemed to be on the other side of this brewing GOP civil war.

BAIER: That was after lunch.

LIASSON: After lunch. He must have had something really good at lunch. Because he seemed to say in the Rose Garden that he's going to be on the side of these incumbents like he did with Luther Strange, an experience that did not work well for him and he wasn't happy about it. But now he's talking about talking Steve Bannon out of these primary challenges. I can't imagine that he will be successful. But he has now chosen a side for now in this internal fight.

BAIER: Let just me go for one second about the Alabama primary. It seemed like that is a little different in that it wasn't Steve Bannon, but Roy Moore had his own name recognition in Alabama as a judge and the Ten Commandments, and that maybe Bannon is capitalizing on that. Is Bannon the threat that everybody says he is for Republican incumbents?

STEVE HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I do think that you and more are both right, that we can't take too much from Alabama. There were also some local politics at play as well, but I think ultimately there were bigger factors than who Mitch McConnell endorsed and who Donald Trump liked.

But I don't think that what we heard today in the Rose Garden about this Republican unity is likely to last at all. Donald Trump can go to Steve Bannon and try to talk him out of challenging these incumbents, and Steve Bannon will say, Mr. President, thank you. No thank you. I'm not going to do it. He's going to challenge the establishment. That's what Steve Bannon is doing. He is spending his time these times raising money, setting up organizations, recruiting candidates to do precisely that which Donald Trump said today he was going to try to talk them out of. That will not last. If Donald Trump asks Steve Bannon to do it, Steve Bannon will politely decline.

BAIER: Another moment that was picked up on today was the president about calling fallen soldiers, the families of fallen soldiers, and what he said about that.


TRUMP: The traditional way if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How can you make that claim?

TRUMP: I was told that he didn't often. And a lot of presidents don't. They write letters. Excuse me, Peter. I do a combination of both. Sometimes it's a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. President Obama I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told.


BAIER: And the Obama folks, former, went to Twitter and elsewhere and put out all kinds of statements. Sarah Sanders issued a statement saying "The president wasn't criticizing predecessors but stating a fact. When American heroes make the ultimate sacrifice president's pay their respects. Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person. The president, like his predecessors, has done each of these. Individuals claiming former presidents such as their bosses called each family of the fallen are mistaken."

A lot of times the media focus on these back and forth things. That had to do with calling the families of the Niger Special Forces soldiers.

SEXTON: The president needs to be careful when he's talking about these issues that he actually sticks with the facts. I think this is a moment where he went of script and caused a problem for himself where one didn't have to exist at all. Other administrations, other presidents have obviously made calls, have made personal visits to families, and I don't think that's really in dispute. And you can tell from the statement that Sarah Sanders there made that this was a diversion from the overall message of what was going on today, which was McConnell and Trump coming together on the agenda. So it's one of those times you wish Trump would just stay on message.

BAIER: But you know what, he took every question, Mara.

LIASSON: For 45 minutes, he took every question, he took multiple questions.

BAIER: I covered the White House. Have you ever seen that in the Rose Garden?

LIASSON: Never, never before. This was extraordinary. Just like his first solo press conference was extraordinary, you could say that this one was almost a second solo press conference because Mitch McConnell didn't have too much to say.

Yes, he took every question. I think he must've been feeling maybe a little guilty or insecure about having waited at least 12 days before he reached out to the soldiers' families who have been killed in Niger. And his instinct was to blame Barack Obama. The reaction against it wasn't just from Obama staffers. It was also from George W. Bush people, even a woman who had lost her son and said that George W. Bush came to visit her and let her rave and rant at him before he gave her a huge hug. So this was not reaction just from Obama's staff people but also from other presidents who felt maligned by Donald Trump.

BAIER: Back to policy. Does tax reform get done this year? It seemed there was a little bit of hedging there.

HAYES: You love putting me on the spot.

BAIER: I do. Maybe? What are you going to say?

HAYES: I'm skeptical that tax reform happens this year. I think when you look at the new friends that President Trump has made, you look at people like Lindsey Graham, like Rand Paul, he's made some headway with Republicans who have been skeptical of some of the things that he's done in the past.

The problem is they don't offset the new enemies he has made or the new skeptics that he has helped create I would say on the Republican side. And at a certain point, as we saw with health care, the math matters most. If you can't win them over -- and we should be under no illusions, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are not on the same agenda. They may be on tax reform for short-term purposes, but very broadly they are in very different places right now on politics, on policy, on other things as well. They would both like to get tax reform done but if you don't have the numbers, you don't have the numbers.

BAIER: OK, meantime, the numbers, this week is the budget vote. Thad Cochran from Mississippi not expected to be here because of health issues. Senator Menendez likely not there as well, a Democrat in the trial in New Jersey we told you about. We will follow it.

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