By multiple accounts, Donald Trump is in one of the deepest funks of his presidency. The bad news is that the challenges and threats that are making his mood so dark are likely to get worse before they get better.
The President is angry at his rebuke from voters in the midterm elections. The oppressive prospect of action by special counsel Robert Mueller hangs like an immovable cloud over his White House. Staff chaos in the West Wing is producing lurid palace intrigue stories in the media that the President hates.
Abroad, he feuds with allied world leaders, and he’s been so effective in implementing his “America First” policy that he’s the odd man out at summits.
And things are unlikely to improve quickly. Many legal observers expect new indictments to come soon in the Mueller probe, potentially bringing the investigation closer to Trump’s inner circle in its final stages. The President fulminated over the probe on Thursday morning, calling it on Twitter “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT LIKE NO OTHER IN AMERICAN HISTORY!”
Democrats are prepping a barrage of investigations that will make life in his White House a misery – from attempts to seize his tax returns and probe his business dealings to investigations into key policy areas like immigration.
“He’s pissed – at damn near everyone,” a White House official told CNN on Wednesday.
Trump is letting off steam where he can. He’s feuding with a former friend, Emmanuel Macron, mocking the French President’s approval rating (at 29%, it is lower than Trump’s) and the French jobless rate of over 9%.
In an interview with the Daily Caller on Wednesday, the President betrayed his disturbed equilibrium, claiming that voter fraud had cost Republicans key races.
“When people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again,” Trump claimed, without evidence.
Not the first President to feel this way
Trump is not the first President to feel isolated, angry, rejected by voters or down in the dumps. Everyone who sits in the Oval Office feels that way sooner or later, though Trump’s temperament is more volcanic than most.
The question for Trump is, what can he do – other than a few restorative weekends on the golf course in Florida – to improve his position ahead of a crucial period that will define opening chapters of his re-election campaign?
Often when they are in trouble, Presidents engineer staff shakeups to bring in new ideas and energy. They go looking for wins in foreign policy, an area that pesky congressional foes can do little to disrupt.
More fundamentally, Trump could examine his entire political approach. While his strategy of division and tearing at cultural and racial divides helped him win the White House, it seemed to backfire in key House races. Failure to win back the suburbs could harm his hopes of winning a second term in 2020.
If Trump never gave another angry news conference or swore off explosive tweets, it’s possible that his political situation – and his 39% approval rating in the latest CNN poll – would improve.
After all he’s kept many of his campaign promises. Unemployment is at its lowest point in half a century and economic growth is going gangbusters.
And conservatives will thank Trump for decades for his two successful Supreme Court nominations.
But the President is so identified with convention-tearing tactics that it’s probably impossible for him to change his style. It’s probably too late as well, since he’s made no effort to broaden his support base since taking office.
Trump’s tempestuous personality and unwillingness to be constrained also likely mean that another remedy available to other Presidents – a hotshot new staffer to shake up operations in the West Wing – is unlikely to work.
His first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, failed to impose order on Trump and was soon out the door. His successor, John Kelly, who is rumored to be on his way out, was soon drowned out by chaos.
The idea that Trump will look at election results, have some kind of political conversion and become a kinder, gentler President is also unthinkable.
He almost never admits he’s wrong and he’s been looking for people to blame for the GOP loss in the House.
For instance, the President listed GOP candidates who refused to accept his support – or what he called “the embrace” – at a post-midterm election news conference.
A boost on the horizon?
So what about a win on the world stage to boost the President’s spirits?
There’s not a lot of low-hanging fruit. US Middle East policy is in uproar since it’s anchored on Saudi Arabia, which is being ostracized over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Still, a breakthrough in a joint US and British diplomatic bid to end the war in Yemen would not just boost Trump’s political prospects, it also would be a significant victory for humanity.
Trump’s hopes of a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have taken a dent, with Pyongyang angry at the lack of concessions by the US and new indications that it is pressing ahead with its missile program.
Later this month, Trump will head to the G20 summit. Progress in defusing his trade war with China at his talks there with President Xi Jinping – or even a ceasefire – could be spun as a foreign policy victory.
Trump is also expected to meet with Vladimir Putin at the summit in Argentina. But that’s a potential political landmine, given allegations of Russian election interference that have produced unflattering media coverage of his chats with the Russian leader, which has infuriated the President.
The chances of significant wins at home also seem slim, given the gridlock that will descend on Washington when Democrats take the House gavel.
But Trump mused after the midterm elections that the new arrangements might be more conducive to deal-making than had a thin GOP majority materialized.
“This way, they’ll come to me, we’ll negotiate. Maybe we’ll make a deal, maybe we won’t,” he said.
Trump seemed like someone trying to convince himself as much as the reporters in the room. But it’s possible there is common ground on issues like prescription drug prices or infrastructure.
There was actually a ray of light on Wednesday when Trump had Democrats and Republicans to the White House to sign a bill that represents a small step toward criminal justice reform.
“Did I hear the word bipartisan?” Trump quipped at the signing ceremony.
Once the Democratic subpoenas start flying, however, the room for compromise might shrivel.
So Trump will have one final option – elevate an enemy – a device he has effectively used throughout his political and business career.
He could choose to stage a showdown over a year-end spending bill to wring more financing for his border wall out of Congress. Though it’s not clear that the possible government shutdown that could result would help him politically.
There is an argument that Trump will actually profit from lining up against a Democratic-led House next year – especially if Nancy Pelosi, whose approval ratings are worse than his, gets her old job back as speaker.
When 2019 dawns, a flurry of Democrats are likely to begin launching presidential campaigns, giving him an excuse to head out to the place where he always feels best: among his adoring throngs on the campaign trail.