The noose tightens
WASHINGTON, DC — Even with a new minder trying to bring some order to the White House, President Donald Trump remains in a heap of trouble. The installation of retired general John Kelly, formerly Trump’s secretary for homeland security, as chief of staff, replacing the hapless Reince Priebus, has reduced some of the internal chaos and induced a bit more discipline in Trump’s behavior. But all this could change at any moment.
Kelly has put a stop to aides sauntering into the Oval Office whenever they felt like it — Trump tends to echo the last person he’s spoken with — and has demanded that papers and memos for the president be submitted to him first. For the time being, at least, the president’s tweeting has been reduced in number and nuttiness.
Keen Trump observers expect that he’ll soon begin to chafe under this discipline. Understanding Trump’s enormous ego, Kelly is said to encourage gently rather than instruct. He also has the advantage of Trump’s high regard for generals.
Meanwhile, Trump’s poll ratings are lower than ever—and the lowest of any president at such an early point in an administration. Members of his own Republican Party are distancing themselves from him.
The recent failure of the Republican-dominated Congress to repeal Barack Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which made healthcare available for millions of people who previously couldn’t afford it, was a humiliating defeat for Trump. Just enough Republican senators (three, but more were in reserve if needed) voted to reject the last of several efforts to fulfill the party’s vow to replace “Obamacare.”
That nickname for the ACA, coined by the Republicans when the law was enacted in early 2010, was intended to be derogatory, and their opposition to the program seemed to be vindicated in that year’s midterm elections, when they swept Congress. But the Republicans didn’t reckon on two things: that as people gained access to health insurance (some 20 million by this year), it became popular—as did Obama, who ended his second term as one of America’s most liked presidents.
At the end of six months in office, Trump has no single legislative achievement to crow about (though he has claimed the Senate’s approval of Neil Gorsuch as a new Supreme Court justice as a victory). Significantly, Senate Republican leaders ignored Trump’s demand that they take up repeal and replace of Obamacare again, before they consider any other major issue.
While the healthcare bill was commanding most of the attention on Capitol Hill, another piece of legislation was moving along in the Congress, representing another setback for Trump. Troubled by his apparent soft spot for (or perhaps fear of) Vladimir Putin, overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers passed a bill to impose more sanctions on Russia and—most unusually—to prevent him from lifting any such penalties. And, because the bill passed with enough votes to override a presidential veto, Trump had little choice but to sign it, which he did in private.
Meanwhile, the inquiry into Trump and his campaign’s relations with Russia in connection with its meddling in his favor in the 2016 election has continued out of the public’s sight. That inquiry has broadened to include Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and son Donald Jr.
Earlier, Trump let it be known that he wanted the special counsel running that investigation, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who is highly respected by both parties, to be fired. He’d already fired FBI director James Comey, but by law, he couldn’t fire Mueller himself, so he tried to bully Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had (appropriately) recused himself from the inquiry, into resigning. That way, Trump could appoint a replacement who would fire Mueller.
But Sessions, the first Republican senator to endorse Trump, refused to resign. Several of Sessions’ former Senate colleagues also demanded that Trump back off.
Then, as Congress prepared to leave for the August recess, it was learned that Mueller—who had hired highly regarded prosecutors specializing in international financial transactions, despite Trump’s warnings not to look into his finances—had impaneled a grand jury in Washington. The noose tightens. –Project Syndicate
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Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.”
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