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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Speaking to Senate Republicans over lunch, Mitch McConnell dryly mimicked Gerald Ford's inaugural address after the disgrace of Richard Nixon.

Details: It was the afternoon in March when the conference had to take a divisive vote on whether to renounce President Trump's circumvention of Congress to fund the wall. “Well, colleagues," McConnell said, according to two sources in the room, "all I can say is our long national nightmare is over."

Between the lines: McConnell was trying to empathize with a Republican conference that had fretted for weeks about Trump's emergency decision. McConnell publicly supported the president's use of emergency powers, but his message was for the dozen Republicans who would defy Trump that day.

  • McConnell was showing them that he understood they had to do what they had to do, and he reiterated he wouldn't pressure them to stand by Trump on the vote, according to sources familiar with the leader's private comments over many weeks.
  • A senior administration official told me this had followed weeks of frustration with the White House’s shutdown decision.

Two of McConnell's top White House allies — White House counsel Don McGahn and chief of staff Gen. John Kelly — had departed. And a tactical foe — White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — was ascendant.

  • "Mulvaney was a shutdown guy," said a senior administration official.
  • A source close to McConnell countered that McConnell has always dealt with Trump one-on-one, "and that's the way he wants it."

The big picture: Republican senators have noticed an evolution in McConnell's relationship with Trump. When Trump first became president, McConnell avoided any public disagreement with him. But in the past two weeks, McConnell has condemned two of Trump's ideas as politically disastrous:

  1. Diving back into repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act after the Republicans spectacularly failed to do so in 2017. In a Senate lunch two weeks ago, per a source in the room, McConnell said: "I called the president and I said 'Just so we don't have any misunderstandings, we are not going to vote on health care before 2020. Just so we're clear. And I'm not going to put together a working group. If you want a plan, it's going to have to be yours. But we’re not going to vote on it.'"
  2. Trump's threat to close the ports of entry at the southern border. McConnell warned of a "potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country."

Trump quickly backed off of both ideas, and he didn't show any annoyance with McConnell.

  • "Leader McConnell has an excellent working relationship with the president," says McConnell spokesman David Popp. "They will continue to work side by side for Kentucky and the American people."

The bottom line: Trump and McConnell have a businesslike relationship, and it works for McConnell. The past few months have nearly broken the Republican conference, but don't expect McConnell to become a regular Trump critic.

Go deeper

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Treasury Secretary nominee and former Fed chair Janet Yellen's confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday showed markets just what they can expect from the administration of President-elect Joe Biden: more of what they got under President Trump — at least for now.

What it means: Investors and big companies reaped the benefits of ultralow U.S. interest rates and low taxes for most of Trump's term as well as significant increases in government spending, even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Updated 36 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Biden to sign 15 executive actions on Day One

President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to sign 15 executive actions upon taking office Wednesday, immediately reversing key Trump administration policies.

Why it matters: The 15 actions — aimed at issues like climate change and immigration — mark more drastic immediate steps compared with the two day-one actions from Biden's four predecessors combined, according to incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Mike Allen, author of AM
36 mins ago - Politics & Policy

The Swamp wins

President Trump on Jan. 28, 2017, with two aides he later pardoned — national security adviser Michael Flynn and strategist Steve Bannon. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It was 12:50 a.m. on Inauguration Day when President Trump announced 143 pardons and commutations — including a pardon for Steve Bannon. 17 minutes later, the White House released an executive order that said it all about his failure to "drain the Swamp," as he'd promised in the '16 campaign.

Driving the news: Trump revoked an executive order, signed eight days after he took office, that limits his appointees' lobbying for five years after leaving the administration.