Sen. Mitch McConnell addressed the audience at Thursday’s annual Kentucky Farm Bureau country ham breakfast. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Sen. Mitch McConnell expressed concern over President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about trade Thursday, while the president was launching more barbed tweets criticizing the Senate majority leader before and after McConnell’s speech at the annual Kentucky Farm Bureau Country Ham Breakfast.

Though McConnell spent part of his speech praising the efforts of the Trump administration to roll back federal regulations and appoint conservative judges to federal courts, Trump’s tweets and McConnell pushing back against the president’s lambasting of free trade agreements continued a peculiar week that has featured perhaps the two most powerful Republicans in the country at odds with each other.

Just two days after Trump said he would probably end up “terminating” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at a campaign rally — having already followed through on his campaign pledge to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal — McConnell expressed concern about such rhetoric, saying he and others will have to sell the value of free trade.

“I’m a little concerned about some of the trade rhetoric, not only by the president who succeeded, but by the people who were running against him,” said McConnell. “And I think we still have a selling job to most Americans that trade is a winner for America. We’ve been a great trading nation going back to the founding of this country.”

McConnell added that America actually has a trade surplus with all of the countries it has a trade agreement with, as “they’re buying more of our stuff than we are of theirs,” so “the assumption that every free trade agreement is a loser for America is largely untrue.”

He added that this is especially true for the agricultural sector that filled the room full of 1,600 ham breakfast attendees, which has “nothing more important than trade. We have for a very long time produced way, way more than we need ourselves. And knocking down these barriers and opening up these markets is absolutely critical.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell declined to acknowledge the presence of many reporters asking questions to him after Thursday morning’s KFB ham breakfast. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Trump has criticized McConnell in a number of tweets over the past few weeks, blaming him for the failure of his bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act and reluctance to end the filibuster in the Senate.

Just before McConnell took the podium at the breakfast, Trump tweeted criticism of McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan for not tying a critical vote to increase the federal debt ceiling to another popular piece of legislation, writing that it “Could have been so easy-now a mess!”

Shortly after McConnell finished his speech, Trump tweeted: “The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed! That should NEVER have happened!”

While McConnell himself has been reluctant to voice anything but the mildest of criticism toward Trump, several publications have cited sources close to the senator saying that McConnell is privately furious with Trump over a number of issues and fears his rhetoric is jeopardizing the Republican agenda in Congress, despite the party’s majority in both chambers.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump recently “berated (McConnell) in a phone call that quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.”

In a statement released Wednesday responding to this New York Times story, McConnell said he and the president continue to be in regular contact about their shared policy goals and are “committed to advancing our shared agenda together,” adding that “anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation.”

McConnell opened his remarks at the breakfast by telling the Republican leadership of the Kentucky General Assembly — House Speaker Jeff Hoover and Senate President Robert Stivers — that he would love to have the same large GOP majorities they have in the U.S. Senate. However, “being the Senate majority leader is a little bit like being a groundskeeper at a cemetery. Everybody’s under you, but nobody’s listening. That’s what you get with 52-48.”

McConnell left the breakfast before the main event — the auctioning off of the Fist Prize country ham of the Kentucky State Fair — declining to acknowledge any of the many questions posed to him by reporters walking with him for nearly two minutes until he entered an elevator.

McConnell praises Trump on judges, regulations; calls his win “a win for rural America”

Referring to last year’s elections and the Republican Party’s new control of the White House and Congress, McConnell said, “It’s pretty safe to characterize what happened last year, in many respects, as a comeback for rural and small-town America.” Saying that Democrats are oriented to represent coastal areas and big cities, his party “wants to look after rural America” and is “very oriented toward those who sent us there.”

McConnell also launched into a familiar attack on the former administration of President Barack Obama, saying that its “experimentation in over-regulation” and “tax increases on the most productive citizens and businesses in the country” caused economic growth to be tepid in his two terms.

By repealing 14 regulations so far, he said the new administration and Congress “is interested in getting America growing again,” while regulations giving the EPA “the ability to go after every puddle on your farm is on the way to the ash heap of history.”

Noting that “the greatest opportunity every president has to affect the future is people are giving lifetime seats on federal courts,” McConnell praised Trump’s appointment of conservative judges to federal courts. Touting his blockage of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland throughout the entire final year of his presidency, McConnell praised Trump’s appointment of new conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and two Kentuckians to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who are “young, responsible, conservative judges who will be there for a very, very long time.”

McConnell also made a familiar pitch for the need to reform the federal tax codes this fall by lowering the tax rates of business and the top income bracket, saying it would boost economic growth, job creation and companies returning offshore assets and investment inside the U.S.

Rep. Massie calls Trump’s criticism of McConnell “misdirected,” should focus on GOP House leadership

Asked about Trump’s recent criticism of McConnell before the breakfast, Republican Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky’s Fourth District said, “The animosity of the president is misdirected,” and that Trump “needs to start looking at the House of Representatives,” where Trump’s legislative agenda should be advancing quickly, but is not.

Republican Congressman Thomas Massie, Kentucky’s Fourth District

“I think he should be more upset at (GOP House Speaker) Paul Ryan than at Mitch McConnell,” said Massie. “Sen. McConnell put a repeal of Obamacare on the floor. We still haven’t even got to vote on that in the House. We had some Obamacare-light bill that, frankly, was a placebo that everybody knew was never going to become law. That’s what we voted on, it was like a hot potato.”

However, Massie also said, “I don’t think it’s healthy to attack individual senators or members of Congress,” as he has learned not to alienate members of Congress.

As for the upcoming Sept. 29 deadline to pass legislation lifting the federal debt ceiling in order to avoid a catastrophic default, Massie said he would vote for such a bill, but only if it includes a rider to “address the debt or the deficit in years one, two or three in the budget. But if they come to me and say, ‘OK, we’ve got this 10-year budget and in years five through 10 we start to balance the budget, and we’ll pass this if you’ll vote to increase the debt limit,’ I can’t go for that. Because I don’t trust these guys more than six months or a year out.”

Speaking in Kentucky on Monday, Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, said he preferred a “clean” lift to the federal debt limit, free of any partisan policy riders that might serve as a roadblock to its passage. However, Massie countered, “I don’t think it makes it dirty to add something to address the debt when you pass a debt limit increase. They talk about a clean debt limit increase, I think a debt limit increase has to include something to address the ongoing deficit.”

Asked what the libertarian-leaning Republican thought about the Trump administration so far, Massie smirked and shrugged his shoulders, moving on by saying, “I’m focused on the House of Representatives, and I can tell you I’m not happy with the way things are going in the House of Representatives.”

Bevin makes another pitch to ‘save’ public pensions; legislators to meet next week on subject

Speaking before McConnell at the breakfast, Gov. Matt Bevin noted he would have to leave early to meet with McConnell, Hoover and Stivers to discuss the state’s woefully underfunded public pension system for state workers and retirees.

The governor is expected to call a special session of the General Assembly this fall to tackle the issue, but no details have been made public yet about what such reform will specifically look like — other than it will not address tax reform or increase the state’s tax revenue.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers | Photo by Joe Sonka

“The reality is, we do have a pension issue that needs to be addressed,” said Bevin. “It affects everyone in this room. You may not think it affects anyone … but every dollar that does not become available to a school system or a law enforcement opportunity is not made available because it’s having to shore up a sagging pension system.”

Saying that Frankfort has “a legal and moral obligation” to save the public pension system, Bevin added that elected officials “have been deluding ourselves for a long time in this state, and we know it. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fun. No one wants to be the elected leaders at the time when the rubber has to meet the road and the hard decisions are made.”

Hoover told reporters before the breakfast that the entire state House will convene for a closed meeting on Tuesday in order to discuss pensions, while Stivers said the caucuses of each party may have their own meetings on the subject.

House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, complained that he and other members of the legislature are totally in the dark about what changes to the pension system will be proposed in the special session, and that state workers and retirees are worried that their promised benefits may be cut.

Bevin makes another attack on the media, blames them for ‘division’

In his first two years in office, Gov. Bevin has not been shy about launching personal and name-calling attacks against those he views as enemies, whether they are political rivals, judges or — most often — members of the media. Just after beginning his speech Thursday with a unifying embrace of the greatness of Kentucky, farmers and Americans, he once again shifted his focus to the media as the fomenters of division.

“There’s so much division, there’s so much unrest,” said Bevin. “There’s so much celebration of it, sadly, and so much fomenting of it, for the sake of creating controversy and selling copy.”

Bevin continued: “And it’s unfortunate, because what we see in America is something a little different than what we grew up with. More than just the price of the ham has changed since 1964, I’ll say that. And this is something that I think should be a wake-up call to each of us.”

While Trump has faced bipartisan criticism among elected officials and business leaders over his response to events in Charlottesville last week, Bevin has instead joined Trump in criticizing the way the media covered that response, even comparing those who want to remove Confederate monuments to genocidal world leaders of the past and ISIS.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]louisville.com.