Keeping his base solid could stop moderate Republicans from seeking distance from his administration
Trump's first instinct will be to go on all-out attack
President Donald Trump’s odyssey through Europe and the Middle East fulfilled a more narrow political focus for the reeling White House: It was a nine-day distraction from the dominant narrative of a presidency under siege.
Now, Trump needs to find another way to change the subject, because the questions about Russia that have long clouded his administration have deepened in the time he has spent away.
With his White House and campaign being investigated by a special counsel over alleged collusion with Russia, and the saga now reaching into his family circle after reports that son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to set up a secret channel with the Kremlin, it is even more imperative for the President to shore up his political standing. Some polls have Trump’s approval rating below 40%. Keeping his base solid could stop moderate Republicans from seeking distance from his administration.
Trump’s first instinct will be to go on all-out attack. In fact, he’s already done so in a Twitter storm after returning from Europe. But scorching the earth in Washington tends to burn his White House as much as his opponents.
Here are some ways the Trump administration could try to change the subject:
The palace purge
White House communications director Mike Dubke is leaving, he said Tuesday. Dubke submitted his resignation on May 18 but stayed on until the end of Trump’s foreign trip.
West Wing staffers, like sports team coaches, are hired to one day be fired. A purge of underperforming, or unlucky, White House staffers can work wonders. Bill Clinton’s chaotic presidency started to get its act together when he named Leon Panetta, a Washington sage, as chief of staff. George W. Bush needed a scalp after the GOP was humiliated in his second midterm election, so Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got the push.
No one knows which Trump acolyte may be dismissed – Dubke was an outsider not involved in the campaign. At one time or the other, all the big players – Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, even Jared Kushner – have had their ups and downs.
But Trump isn’t a traditional president. His management style relies on circles of chaos. A top-down structure of authority might create even more conflict. Could a new West Wing supremo control Trump any more than anyone else has? Would anyone even want to try?
WWBC do? (What would Bill Clinton do?)
When Clinton was consumed by the impeachment drama that erupted after his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, he would constantly stress he was working hard for the American people.
During the ordeal, he preserved his political standing so that by the time the Senate sat in judgment, many Americans didn’t think he should lose his job.
Trump hasn’t learned the art of Clintonian compartmentalizing. Quite the reverse. He can’t stop talking about the Russia saga. He was barely back on US soil for half a day when he launched a Twitter broadside at the media.
So as the White House sets up a war room to wage a fight for the Trump presidency as the Russia intrigue deepens, it may be as important to change the President’s conduct as it is to discredit the campaign against him.
It might not be a bad idea for Trump to spend more time on the stagecraft of the presidency. On Monday, he mingled with bereaved relatives in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery, the spot that holds the graves of many of the dead of the Iraq and Afghan wars. It appeared to be the kind of heartfelt gesture many Americans expect of their president.
Apart from a few blips, the President’s conduct for much of his nine-day trip to Europe and the Middle East was largely conventional. Not everyone who voted against Trump wanted him to fail – at least to start with – a factor the President clearly hasn’t processed.
Party like it’s 2016
Trump, even more than most politicians, loves the roar of the crowd.
Isolated among the portraits and the silence of the White House, Trump must sometimes yearn for the life he clearly loved during the 2016 campaign.
Trump has already returned to the trail quicker than most presidents: He did a pre-inauguration victory lap through states that helped pave his route to the White House. He had been expected to return to one of his winning battlegrounds in Iowa on Thursday, but the event was canceled with no explanation from his political team.
But it’s a good bet it won’t be long before Trump is out with his “Make America Great” crowd again.
Boosting the President’s spirits may just make life around the White House easier for political aides. But it probably won’t do much to improve Trump’s political situation. That’s because when he preaches to the converted he alienates other voters. And so far he’s done little in his presidency to reach out beyond his base – hence his toxic polling performance.
About those wins …
By now, America was supposed to be winning so much it would be sick of winning. But the truth is the President has had few victories that stand alone – that don’t require a White House spin effort to appear significant.
Right now, there seems little prospect – despite the Republican monopoly on power in Washington – that there will be any significant legislative achievement the White House can dine out on over the summer.
The health care bill that passed the House is a polling loser. Senate leaders now have the unenviable task of trying to pass a bill the other chamber can accept. Thoughts that tax reform might be the year’s big bill seem to be fading.
Perhaps the White House should try to build momentum and political coalitions from small foundations. Maybe Republicans could woo a few Democrats to a pre-midterm election infrastructure bill? Or perhaps a tax cut rather than a tax reform bill might help fuse GOP divisions in the House? All this seems fine in theory. But the polarization of Washington tends to kill such pipe dreams.
And Democrats, who would be needed to help push something really significant through the Senate, have few incentives to bail out a wobbling President.
Often, presidents look overseas to make up for failings at home.
Jimmy Carter’s presidency is now remembered as much for the Camp David peace accords as its failed single term. Richard Nixon will always be stained by Watergate, but his foreign policy legacy takes on more weight with every decade that passes.
Trump is not in that league yet. But an unequivocal foreign policy win would polish his legacy at home and enhance his standing abroad, even if it would not make all his domestic political woes go away.
But he’s not making many friends so far. While some US allies, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, gravitated toward his strongman leadership style, others, principally in Europe, have been horrified.
And since Trump had little foreign policy experience before coming to office, turning to global affairs may create as many problems as it solves.
“I think it must have felt good for President Trump to get out of the United States for a while. He certainly was feted in Saudi Arabia, I think he did well with (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu in Israel. Things got murkier post-Vatican when he met with what should have been the easiest part of the trip with our NATO allies,” said CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
“He seems bombastic with our NATO allies, we have (Chancellor Angela) Merkel in Germany now saying that the United States – we may not be able to trust them.
“It seems that Trump is ignorant almost of the whole Atlanticist tradition.”
While strutting the global stage might tempt Trump away from his troubles at home, there are so many intractable issues – from North Korea’s missile threat to the genocidal misery in Syria – there are not many easy wins out there.
And there’s one huge hidden flaw to casting a global net. Sooner or later, Trump would bump up against Russia – the root of all his political worries.