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Trump and the GOP are heading for war. Here's how it will be fought

  • President Trumps' uneasy marriage with the establishment Republican Party is coming undone.
  • If it devolves into all-out war, the White House can use health policy, the Middle East, and congressional elections as key weapons.
  • Republicans need to figure a way out of this lose/lose situation.

From the collapse of the health bill to squabbles over congressional investigations, the uneasy marriage between President Donald Trump and the Republican Party seems to be coming undone. There are signs that this isn't going to be an amicable divorce. It could even devolve into all-out war.

If that happens, President Trump has some distinct advantages that go beyond holding the office of the presidency. Those advantages are what led to Trump's stunning and clear victories over more than a dozen establishment Republicans in the 2016 primaries.

Just to recap the facts, remember that Trump bashed those Republicans with a constant fury and he still won primary after primary in the supposedly establishment GOP stronghold of the South just as easily as he did in the Northeast and Midwest.

After Trump won the nomination, establishment leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan openly bemoaned their differences with Trump on more than one occasion.

But after Trump'a general election victory, there were efforts to reconcile the new administration with the Republican Party. The new administration's hiring of now-former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who had been the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, was the most obvious of those efforts.

We now know the detente isn't working out well for either side.

With that in mind, here are three battlefields where President Trump and the GOP could go to war in the coming days and months:

Health Coverage

President Trump acted as a non-detail oriented cheerleader for the Republican's efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare in Congress. His lack of specific guidance, along with a mix of crony capitalism and cowardice by several GOP senators, doomed those efforts. But even if a new bill is never introduced, there's plenty President Trump can do to change the health insurance game.

First off, he's already threatened on more than one occasion to rescind the federal subsidy payments to health insurance companies. He's even referred to them as bailouts. That would likely outrage many Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who kept insurance company lobbyists on board while crafting the Obamacare replacement bill.

But even more up close and personal is President Trump's threat that the government will stop paying subsidies for Congress's higher-end health insurance plan premiums.

Finally, the White House is reportedly looking into several other actions the president could undertake via executive orders including allowing association health plans like anti-establishment Republican Senator Rand Paul has been pushing.

It's important to note that most of President Trump's possible weapons on health care would anger and harm Democrats in Congress too. But for the White House that wouldn't be a negative, that would be icing on the cake.

Middle East

Remember when candidate Trump bashed the $6 trillion we've spent on wars in the Middle East? The comment was a bit shocking coming from a so-called Republican when it was Republican Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush who brought the U.S. into those wars. It was that bashing of those wars that served as a launching point for several current and former U.S. military and intelligence officials to openly oppose the Trump candidacy. And yet it's a claim President Trump has repeated a few times this year.

President Trump has been far from a pacifist since taking office, with the most stark example being his ordering of a cruise missile strike on a Syrian government airbase connected to a gas attack on rebel forces. But he's also reportedly moved to make significant cutbacks to the C.I.A.-provided arms to Syrian rebels. That decision drew severe criticisms from Republicans, led by none other than Senator John McCain. That would be the same Senator McCain who voted to kill the Senate's Obamacare repeal effort just a few days after his comments blasting Trump's Syria decision.

But that move proves just how much the Trump team can mess with the GOP military agenda overall. As Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces, there's a lot President Trump can do without congressional approval when it comes to using or not using deadly force.

Special elections and midterms

And the final and most lethal weapons President Trump can use in a war with the establishment Republicans is his ability to threaten their job security. So far, the president has been a cheerleader for Republicans running in special elections since his own election back in November. He tweeted or appeared at rallies for winning GOP candidates like Senator John N. Kennedy in Louisiana and Representative Karen Handel in Georgia.

But President Trump can turn that help into harm in current and future elections very easily. He could, for example, decide to back a GOP candidate other then the McConnell-backed Luther Strange in the Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate.

Strange's two opponents, Representative Mo Brooks and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, are both pitching themselves as decidedly anti-establishment Republicans. He could also simply sit that election out, which would be almost as serious a snub to McConnell.

In the 2018 midterm elections, where all of the House and a third of the U.S. Senate are up for grabs, President Trump could easily exercise either one of those options. And he wouldn't be the first sitting President to quietly enjoy seeing his own party lose control of Congress. As the late presidential biographer Stephen Ambrose told me in a 1994 radio interview, President Dwight Eisenhower was pleased by the GOP's loss of Congress in 1954 as he believed he could accomplish more without them in charge on the Hill.

Whether President Trump could get anything done with the current Democratic Party in a majority position in Congress seems more like a stretch today. But if the White House can't get much legislation passed with the Republican majority, what would be the effective difference?

The funny thing about this is that Trump's potential war with the Republicans may not bring very different results than what we see when presidents are supposedly in step with their political parties. An analysis released this week by the political research group Ballotpedia shows that just four sitting presidents over the last 100 years have actually helped improve their party's electoral fortunes overall.

In other words, 13 of the last 17 presidents have seen their party lose a net total of congressional seats, gubernatorial elections, and seats in state legislatures. Having your guy in the White House, even if he isn't a bomb thrower like President Trump, is usually more of a curse than a blessing for the rest of the elected leaders in the party.

But things can always get worse when you have something to lose. President Trump can intentionally or unintentionally finish what he started during the primaries and strip the establishment Republican Party of whatever political power and influence it has left. It's that reality that should lead more GOP leaders to try to find a new way to either make peace with the White House or prove they can work effectively on their own.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.