The collapse of health care reform in the Senate on Monday night is a fitting coda to President Donald Trump’s first six months in office, a tenure that has lurched from controversy to controversy and now appears to be on the verge of tilting directly into the political abyss.
Consider the following facts:
- Trump’s job approval rating at the 6-month mark is lower than eight of the past nine presidents’. He’s tied with Gerald Ford, who had taken over from Richard Nixon, who had fled Washington in the wake of the Watergate scandal and whom Ford, very controversially, pardoned.
- Despite his braggadocio, Trump has a pittance of legislative accomplishments to tout. Health care appears to be dead in the water – and even Trump can’t seem to decide what the right next step should be. There is currently zero new funding for Trump’s much-touted border wall. Tax reform still in its infant stage, with few details added to the first, basic proposal. Infrastructure proposals are in limbo. There is no announced strategy on the raising of the debt ceiling. And on and on and on.
- A special counsel was appointed and is investigating Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election and the possibility that members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to aid his campaign. That investigation has triggered a major lawyering-up of all the major players – including several Trump family members – and a series of ever-changing stories about who said what and when.
Any one of those three things would be enough to imperil a presidency. All three of them – and all within the first six months of an administration – suggest an unprecedented (that word comes up a lot with Trump) level of political jeopardy not just for the President but for the Republican Party he ostensibly leads.
And amid all of the chaos, the controversy and the tweeting, the tweeting, the tweeting is this fundamental fact: Donald Trump ain’t changing. He is a 71-year-old man. A very successful 71-year-old man. A man who views the 2016 election as the ultimate validation that he is smarter than all of the so-called political elites.
The biggest takeaway then from Trump’s first six months in office is that there is no new Donald Trump, no Trump 2.0, no “presidential” pivot. What you see is what you get. And, unfortunately for Trump and the Republican Party, large majorities don’t like what they are getting.
Just 36% of people approve of the job Trump is doing, via a Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend, while 58% disapprove. More troubling for Trump (and his party) is the fact that the intensity is all on the anti-Trump side; 48% strongly disapprove of how Trump is doing the job while just 25% strongly approve.
Trump seems to either not understand or not care about those numbers. On Sunday, he tweeted, “The ABC/Washington Post Poll, even though almost 40% is not bad at this time, was just about the most inaccurate poll around election time!”
Despite a series of warnings – subtle and not-so-subtle – from congressional leaders and even from certain members of his inner circle, Trump has not modified his behavior one iota.
Sure there have been fits and starts – He gave a good speech! He didn’t attack anyone on Twitter for two days straight! – throughout the first six months of his time in office. But attempting to connect those lines into any sort of broader “presidential” narrative is a big mistake.
Trump acts. He does. He says stuff. Sometimes that stuff works out for him. Sometimes it doesn’t. Often, as in his tweets on health care over the past 12 hours, he says things that directly contradict things he’s said in the not-too-distant past.
It’s a reverse “Groundhog Day.” We wake up remembering exactly what happened the day, week and month before. Trump doesn’t. (Hat tip to “The Situation Room” executive producer Jay Shaylor for that one.)
Or, it’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Trump’s slate is wiped clean each day. He feels entirely unburdened by what he’s said or done in the past. Or yesterday.
Trump is laying down the tracks as the train is speeding down them. The strategy is survival and, in the broadest sense, “winning.” But the idea that Trump has some sort of long-game strategy on where the track is heading and how to get there is disproved with each passing day.
Or, to borrow a phrase from my friend Philip Bump, it’s more likely that Trump is playing zero-dimensional chess than it is that he is playing the three-dimensional version.
Congressional Republicans, to this point, have been willing to ride the Trump roller coaster because they have convinced themselves that despite all of the surprising climbs and gut-wrenching drops, they ultimately can get what they want from him.
Exhibit A – and really Exhibit Only – of that argument is the nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. It is, without question, the biggest success of Trump’s first six months in office – and one with long-lasting consequences. And, it is undeniably true, that had Hillary Clinton been elected president, she would have appointed someone far less conservative than Antonin Scalia or Gorsuch to the nation’s highest court.
It is also true that the easiest way for Trump to leave a positive conservative legacy behind him is to hope that another justice retires, with Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg most rumored to head for the exits. If that happened, Trump would be the Republican President credited with turning a split court with a swing vote into a 5-4 conservative majority. And with Gorsuch, Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito all relatively young, it could be a conservative majority for, literally, decades to come.
Short of a Supreme Court retirement, however, it’s difficult to see how Trump gets his presidency back on track after these first six months.
Health care repeal seems likely to fail in the Senate, leaving Republicans with the uncomfortable choice of doing nothing at all or working with Democrats to make fixes around the edges to make the current law function better.
Tax reform, which was rolled out to much ballyhoo by the Trump administration, remains nothing more than a broad outline of proposals – none of which have begun to make their way through the legislative process.
Despite a notable crackdown on illegal immigration, Trump’s long-promised border wall looks more and more like a pipe dream as it’s hard to see wavering Republicans in Congress cowed by a President with the approval of just over 1 in 3 Americans.
Then there is Russia. The timeline of Bob Mueller’s investigation is hazy, but we know he has staffed up considerably, suggesting a wide-ranging probe that could go on for months. Then there are the parallel congressional investigations, with their own fact-finding operations and timelines.
That all suggests that Russia is going to be with Trump for a very long time. And we know, from oodles of great reporting as well as his Twitter feed, that Trump is uniquely fixated – and bothered – by the ongoing Russia probe. We also know that those around Trump – led by his eldest son, Don Jr. – can’t seem to get their story straight about what happened, when it happened and why it happened.
In short: Russia was the story of the first six months of this administration, and all signs point to it being the story of the second six months too.
Depending on how Trump, his allies and his Republican counterparts – some of whom are his allies, some of whom aren’t – handle these next six months on Russia will almost certainly determine whether his presidency tips into political oblivion or whether he can wrench the wheel of state back to more favorable ground.
Given that Trump scored the single biggest upset in modern political history less than a year ago, no one should rule out that latter possibility. But, after six months of “Trump the President,” the likeliest outcome seems to be a slip into the political abyss. Believe me. Bigly.