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Trump-McConnell 2020? Senate leader glues self to president

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (right) is positioning himself as President Trump’s wingman and his trusted right hand in Congress.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (right) is positioning himself as President Trump’s wingman and his trusted right hand in Congress.(Evan Vucci/Associated Press/File 2017)

WASHINGTON — It’s not quite ‘‘Trump-McConnell 2020,’’ but it might as well be.

As he runs for reelection, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is positioning himself as the president’s wingman, his trusted right hand in Congress, transformed from a behind-the-scenes player into a prominent if sometimes reviled Republican like none other besides Donald Trump himself.

‘‘In Washington, President Trump and I are making America great again!’’ he declared at a rally in Kentucky.

Other than Democrat Nancy Pelosi — and more recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — no current politician has so quickly become such a high-profile object of partisan scorn. McConnell was heckled last weekend at his home state’s annual ‘‘Fancy Farm’’ political picnic, and protesters outside his Louisville house hurled so many profanities that Twitter temporarily shut down his account for posting video of them online.

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Undaunted, he revels in the nickname he’s given himself — the ‘‘Grim Reaper,’’ bragging that he’s burying the House Democrats’ agenda — though he seems stung by one lobbed by opponents, ‘‘Moscow Mitch.’’

But the Democrats’ agenda includes gun legislation to require background checks that Trump now wants to consider, forcing McConnell to adjust his earlier refusal to do so. The Senate leader has been here before, pushing ahead with a Trump priority that’s unpopular with most Republicans. But this will test both his relationship with the president and his grip on the GOP majority.

All while he’s campaigning to keep his job. McConnell is even more dependent on Trump’s popularity in Kentucky than on his own.

‘‘They need each other,’’ says Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to McConnell.

The new McConnell strategy shows just how far Trump has transformed the GOP, turning a banker’s-collar-and-cufflinks conservative into a ‘‘Fake News!’’ shouting senator.

Theirs was not an easy alliance in Trump’s first year, and they went a long stretch without talking to each other. But two years on, McConnell has proven a loyal implementer of the president’s initiatives, and Trump no longer assails the senator on Twitter.

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Perhaps no issue has drawn the unlikely partners together more than the current reckoning over gun violence. Republicans, long allied with the National Rifle Association, have resisted stricter laws on firearm and ammunition sales. But the frequency of mass shootings and the grave toll are intensifying pressure to act.

Trump on Friday revived his interest in having Congress take a look at expanding federal background checks and other gun safety laws long pushed by Democrats, insisting he will be able to get Republicans on board. McConnell, in a shift, said he’s now willing to consider those ideas ‘‘front and center’’ when Congress returns in the fall.

Said Trump, ‘‘I think I have a greater influence now over the Senate.’’

But McConnell doesn’t call himself the Grim Reaper for nothing. He is well known on Capitol Hill for his legislative blocking skills, having stopped much of the Obama administration’s agenda when he first became Senate leader and more recently halting bills coming from the Democratic-controlled House.

‘‘We’ve seen it before,’’ said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, in a tweet after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. ‘‘An awful shooting occurs. @realDonaldTrump expresses interest in helping. Republicans try to get him off the hook with lesser measures. Nothing happens.’’

In fact, McConnell and his allies have taken on Trump’s style, lashing out at media and political opponents. When campaign volunteers came under criticism for appearing to choke a cardboard cutout of Ocasio-Cortez at the picnic in a photo circulated online, McConnell allies said the high schoolers were being treated unfairly by opponents trying to maliciously shame them in public.

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