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Senior Republicans are split over how to treat Trump: Pay homage at Mar-a-Lago or refuse to 'bend the knee'

Posted February 18, 2021 4:20 p.m. EST

— Senior Republicans are split over how to treat former President Donald Trump, with the No. 2 House Republican making a personal pilgrimage to visit him on the same day that the top Senate Republican vowed never to "bend the knee" in that way.

Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana met privately with Trump on Wednesday at the former President's Mar-a-Lago estate, CNN has learned, on the same day that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell vowed never to do so.

The Kentucky Republican is "not going to bend the knee" and travel to Mar-a-Lago, a close McConnell associate told CNN, adding that McConnell will "probably never speak" to Trump again if he can avoid it.

"He's also never going to mention Trump again," said this person.

Politico first reported on Scalise's meeting with Trump.

Like so many other senior Republicans, Scalise and McConnell are following wildly divergent strategies for managing the former President as he threatens to upend all semblance of order in the Republican party.

If they don't figure it out soon, some GOP leaders fear, there could be a major crash ahead. As some see it, that presents the greatest risk for McConnell, who -- despite his power in the Senate -- isn't nearly as popular as Trump with Republican voters across the country.

It's a "collision between a tractor-trailer and a Volkswagen," said one person familiar with both Trump and McConnell's thinking, emphasizing the damage that Trump and his massive base of loyal supporters are capable of inflicting.

The simmering feud between Trump and McConnell has escalated in recent days, raising questions about whether the two can ever work together for the future of the GOP.

Trump went after McConnell in a lengthy statement released Tuesday night after McConnell harshly criticized the former President from the Senate floor on Saturday, and in an op-ed on Monday in the Wall Street Journal, despite voting to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial.

The Republican familiar with both men's thinking said that Trump was not planning to put out his statement until after McConnell published his op-ed, which Trump saw as adding insult to injury. This Republican believes that this is a rare occasion where McConnell was not thinking steps ahead.

"He broke," said the Republican. "It's like when you're in prison and you finally break. This is what Trump does to you."

Now Trump and McConnell allies are scrambling to calm things down between the two men so that Trump doesn't make good on a thinly veiled threat in his statement to push anti-McConnell candidates in GOP Senate primaries. The concern of many Republicans is that doing so would effectively prop up candidates who can't win the general election.

"McConnell has one goal: to win back the majority," said the close McConnell associate. Trump has another goal, this person added: "A revenge tour, an outburst tour."

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, shares McConnell's goal of winning back the GOP majority, but with one key difference: The California Republican believes Republicans need Trump on their side.

McCarthy has continued to embrace the former President, traveling himself to Mar-a-Lago last month and extracting a pledge from Trump to help elect a Republican majority in the House in 2022.

According to one Trump adviser, the former President has said he believes he has leverage over McCarthy, and could threaten to support a primary challenger to him should the minority leader stray too far.

The spotlight is particularly bright on McCarthy. As CNN reported last week, he had a testy exchange with Trump on January 6, in which he pleaded with then President to tell his supporters to stand down during the Capitol riot. Trump refused and accused McCarthy of caring less about the election results than the rioters.

Trump has also fumed about McCarthy's unwillingness to punish Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican who voted to impeach. But McCarthy has also solidified his position within the House GOP conference in recent weeks, in part by standing behind Cheney as the majority of House Republicans voted to keep her on the leadership team.

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