The most unorthodox President of modern times is facing the most familiar of constraints
Trump's first month is especially noteworthy since so much of his trouble stems from self-inflicted wounds
President Donald Trump is facing a humbling prospect: The same Washington buzzsaw that frustrated his 44 predecessors can pose significant hurdles for him as well.
In his first month in office, Trump has found the vast government machine can’t be reset at a president’s whim with the same ease that an executive can manage a business. Rival power centers in the courts, the bureaucracy and Congress can emerge as a threat at any point.
In just the past week, political pressure forced Trump to fire his national security adviser and watch one of his Cabinet nominees withdraw from consideration. Meanwhile, Trump is facing persistent – and growing – questions about his campaign’s ties to Russia as some fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill become more vocal about their concerns. And legislative victories are hard to come by as congressional Republicans struggle to unify behind policy measures and Democrats form a generally solid bloc of opposition.
The transition from candidate to president is tough for virtually every young administration. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for instance, had rocky opening weeks as their campaign idealism encountered Washington reality. But Trump’s first month in office is especially noteworthy since so much of his trouble stems from self-inflicted wounds ranging from the rushed rollout of his travel ban to his frequent Twitter distractions.
The sense of turmoil surrounding the new administration could undermine a central tenet of Trump’s pitch to voters – that he is a non-politician uniquely positioned to make a deal and get Washington working again.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” Trump said last summer when he accepted the GOP nomination in Cleveland. “I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.”
Checks on presidential power
He started out in Washington by keeping faith with those beliefs, unleashing a dizzying sequence of executive orders that revealed a determination to wield firm executive power. But the backlash was swift as the checks on presidential power soon activated.
Trump quickly came up against the judiciary when a federal court halted his controversial executive order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. Despite GOP majorities in Congress, Trump isn’t making much progress on his legislative agenda. Opposition is growing in the Senate to paying for his border wall now that Mexico has refused to fund it, CNN’s Manu Raju has reported. Democrats infuriated the President by clogging up confirmation of Cabinet nominees.
“That’s all they’re doing is delaying. And you look at (Senate Democratic leader) Chuck Schumer and the mess that he’s got over there, and they have nothing going. The only thing they can do is delay,” Trump said during an extraordinary White House press conference last week.
Congress is not alone in provoking Trump’s ire.
A leaky federal government and intelligence community with which he is locked in a perpetual state of war are also resisting Trump’s attempts to exert control over his administration. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus denied Sunday there was dysfunction in the President’s inner circle.
“The truth is that we don’t have problems in the West Wing,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The amount of drama and spin that you read about mostly in the Washington daily gossip rags is unbelievable stuff. And it just isn’t true.”
Getting out of Washington
Amid the negative headlines, Trump is getting out of Washington and aiming to speak directly to the American people. He delivered a speech Friday touting his jobs agenda at a Boeing factory in South Carolina and a campaign-style rally over the weekend in Florida. He’s slated to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress later this month that will give him one of the strongest venues available to project presidential strength.
But Trump’s early stumbles have overshadowed some of areas where he could otherwise claim success. Well-choreographed visits from the leaders of Britain, Israel, Canada and Japan followed a host of executive orders that began to dismantle Obamacare and federal regulations and open the way for cross-continental pipelines, as well as Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. His unveiling of Neil Gorsuch as his nominee for the open Supreme Court seat was one of the most flawless moments of his presidency.
Still, controversy can develop in unexpected directions in Washington and exhaust a White House staff in a way that can be detrimental to a presidency. Trump is not the first President to come into power with a team that doesn’t seem to quite measure up to Washington’s demands.
“I think every administration goes through that,” Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate Majority leader, said in an interview. “I was here through Carter, when a bunch of Georgians who thought they were the smartest guys in town arrived and they were going to fix everything.”
“When (Ronald) Reagan came to town, he brought a bunch of Californians, idealistic ideologues who found out pretty quick that they needed help from Jim Baker,” Lott said.
Through trial and error, Clinton and Reagan learned to work the inside game in Washington to advance what were sometimes seen as outsider political aims. But Trump’s attempts to fight back against the restrictions all presidents face could be complicated by another factor – his idiosyncratic character and political style – which were an undoubted asset when he reinvented the rules of the presidential campaign but have not yet proven effective in governing.
His constant feuds with enemies, sometimes on Twitter, cast doubt on his temperament, as do his unpredictable eruptions and struggles to stop gloating about his election win. His press conference and weekend rallies helped keep his loyal supporters happy and boosted his own morale. But it seems unlikely that he meaningfully advanced his political agenda.
GOP majorities on Capitol Hill should ensure that big ticket issues like tax cuts and Wall Street reform get done and that Trump can bill them as the kind of “wins” he promised would dazzle Washington. And if any politician can get away with such polarizing tactics, it’s Trump.
“The President’s campaign essentially changed the laws of physics last year,” said Bill Lacy, director of the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
“All the so-called experts have been wrong consistently,” Lacy said, adding that Trump had changed the way presidents are viewed along with the usual codes of behavior in the White House and Washington. “Traditionally, a President couldn’t do that and get away with it. With this president, that remains to be seen.”