Agenda stalling, Trump leans on his base

Pres­i­dent shows no signs of an ef­fort to broaden his ap­peal as core re­mains stal­wart.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Noah Bier­man

WASH­ING­TON — Hosts of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s “Morn­ing An­swer” ra­dio show were wrap­ping up a two-hour live broad­cast from a white tent just out­side the West Wing last week and mar­veling at their ac­cess to Cab­i­net sec­re­taries and prom­i­nent ad­min­is­tra­tion fig­ures.

“If you’re a Trump­kin,” host Brian Whit­man told his lis­ten­ers on AM 870, “this is like fan­tasy camp.”

The White House’s day­long hos­pi­tal­ity for Salem Ra­dio Net­work, a na­tion­wide chain of Chris­tian and con­ser­va­tive sta­tions, un­der­scored Pres­i­dent Trump’s con­tin­ued courtship of — and in­creased de­pen­dence on — core sup­port­ers as he con­fronts a stalled agenda and in­creas­ingly per­ilous in­ves­ti­ga­tions into whether his cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia and he sub­se­quently sought to ob­struct the in­quiries.

The play-to-the-base strat­egy em­pow­ers those ad­vi­sors and con­ser­va­tive me­dia push­ing a more na­tion­al­ist, pop­ulist and evan­gel­i­cal agenda for Trump.

Among the lat­est ex­am­ples was his Twit­ter an­nounce­ment Wed­nes­day, which sur­prised even the Pen­tagon, that he would block trans­gen­der peo­ple from mil­i­tary ser­vice de­spite his pre­vi­ous prom­ises “to fight” for LGBTQ rights. That move fol­lowed a Tues­day evening cam­paign-style rally in Youngstown, Ohio, where Trump reprised his most pop­u­lar at­tacks on elites, Democrats and re­cal­ci­trant Repub­li­cans.

All pres­i­dents pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to their sup­port­ers, but the im­per­a­tive grows more ur­gent when they face trou­ble. Pres­i­dent Clin­ton sim­i­larly played to Democrats’ lib­eral base for

self-preser­va­tion dur­ing his im­peach­ment trial in the late 1990s, though all the while he main­tained chan­nels to con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans.

Trump, who de­scribes pol­i­tics as a trans­ac­tional game of win­ning or los­ing, seems to have no use for the usual rhetoric or ac­tions in­tended to soften par­ti­san lines be­tween elec­tions. He has not made a con­certed ef­fort to broaden his ap­peal. Now, with low pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings among the gen­eral pub­lic, he is bank­ing all the more on his po­lit­i­cal base. Those sup­port­ers to date have shown lit­tle sign of wa­ver­ing.

“There’s a large bloc of peo­ple, in­clud­ing so­phis­ti­cated peo­ple, who are just so sick of Wash­ing­ton, who will over­look al­most any­thing as long as he shapes it up,” said for­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich, a Trump con­fi­dant.

Yet if Trump isn’t tak­ing his sup­port­ers for granted, nei­ther is he al­ways pleas­ing them.

For more than a week, Trump has tested those bonds by re­lent­lessly crit­i­ciz­ing Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions, a fa­vorite of many con­ser­va­tives for his hard-line views on im­mi­gra­tion and crime.

That has prompted back­lash not only from Repub­li­can sen­a­tors who served with Ses­sions when he rep­re­sented Alabama, but also from such me­dia loy­al­ists as Rush Lim­baugh and Bre­it­bart News.

Mostly the base re­mains stal­wart, how­ever, while even some of Trump’s closest ad­vi­sors, in­clud­ing Gin­grich, worry that the pres­i­dent could be squan­der­ing an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand his sup­port, and with it his abil­ity to leave a larger pol­icy im­print.

“He’s be­ing ad­vised that he needs to keep [his base] at all costs,” said Christo­pher Ruddy, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the con­ser­va­tive News­max Me­dia and a long­time friend of Trump. “I think that ad­vice is not par­tic­u­larly good.”

Ruddy be­lieves the base’s fealty gives Trump lat­i­tude to reach be­yond his com­fort zone — to seek more cen­trist poli­cies on taxes, ed­u­ca­tion and in­fra­struc­ture, for ex­am­ple — and broaden his sup­port.

Those close to Trump say he has a rosier view of his pop­u­lar­ity than re­flected in most polls, which show his ap­proval just un­der 40%, in part be­cause his elec­tion shat­tered con­ven­tional wis­dom.

“He thinks that if he’s at 40%, he’s ac­tu­ally closer to 50%,” Gin­grich said.

Trump’s self-re­gard is re­in­forced by flat­ter­ing post­mortems he re­ceives from White House staff on how his pub­lic events played in the me­dia. The printed pack­ets in­clude tweets and “top chy­rons” on ca­ble news, lead­ing off with those from Fox News that cap­ture, with­out chal­lenge, his state­ments about his suc­cess.

An­thony Scara­mucci, Trump’s in­com­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, gave his first in­ter­view af­ter Trump chose him to Bre­it­bart News’ ra­dio show, dis­cussing the im­por­tance of get­ting the mes­sage to “the heart­land.”

“We have enough out­lets, whether it’s Bre­it­bart, the pres­i­dent’s so­cial me­dia feed, all of the dif­fer­ent ap­pa­ra­tus that we have, where peo­ple will al­low us to de­liver our mes­sage to the Amer­i­can peo­ple un­fil­tered,” he said.

Those in Trump’s in­ner cir­cle say that his at­ten­tion to the vot­ers he be­lieves put him in of­fice is con­scious and that he views his gov­er­nance as a se­ries of prom­ises kept. One se­nior ad­vi­sor reeled off a num­ber of is­sues: pulling out of the Paris cli­mate agree­ment, dereg­u­lat­ing en­ergy pro­duc­tion and other busi­nesses, crack­ing down on so-called sanc­tu­ary cities, push­ing for higher penal­ties against crim­i­nals who reen­ter the coun­try il­le­gally.

The ad­vi­sor also cited the im­por­tance of show­cas­ing the pres­i­dent’s meet­ings with heads of state and his red-car­pet treat­ment on for­eign trips: Sup­port­ers see those as signs of suc­cess, be­cause many be­lieve Trump has been un­fairly de­picted as an out­cast on the world stage.

The aide also pointed to is­sues that ap­peal to evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, such as re­stric­tions on for­eign aid to groups that pro­vide abor­tions. That em­pha­sis rep­re­sents a slight shift. Trump down­played re­li­gious and so­cial is­sues in his cam­paign and still won about 80% of evan­gel­i­cals’ sup­port.

The pres­i­dent’s in­creased at­ten­tion to re­li­gious and cul­tural is­sues sug­gests he might sus­pect that he can­not take their sup­port for granted.

Hours af­ter an­nounc­ing the trans­gen­der de­ci­sion, Trump tweeted in all caps: “IN AMER­ICA WE DON’T WOR­SHIP GOV­ERN­MENT — WE WOR­SHIP GOD!”

Charles Franklin, di­rec­tor of the Mar­quette Law School Poll in Wis­con­sin, noted an­other area of po­ten­tial con­cern for Trump: fal­ter­ing sup­port from wealth­ier, ed­u­cated sub­ur­ban­ites who typ­i­cally vote Repub­li­can but were less en­thu­si­as­tic about Trump in the elec­tion.

Franklin said the pres­i­dent’s dis­ap­proval rat­ings out­weigh his ap­proval marks in two sub­ur­ban coun­ties around Mil­wau­kee, which he has vis­ited more than once since the elec­tion. Franklin added that Trump has been able to mit­i­gate op­po­si­tion in the state with strong sup­port from ru­ral vot­ers and those in Green Bay, the type of im­por­tant swing area that helped the pres­i­dent form his win­ning na­tional coali­tion.

Polls na­tion­ally show Trump re­tain­ing over 80% sup­port from Repub­li­cans, while about 10% of Democrats ap­prove of him.

His low ap­proval rat­ings among in­de­pen­dents are what have kept his over­all pop­u­lar­ity lower than that of any mod­ern first-year pres­i­dent.

Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity with large ma­jori­ties of Repub­li­cans gives him some pro­tec­tion as the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gins to touch fam­ily mem­bers and close aides. But his threats against Repub­li­cans who cross him on pol­icy are gen­er­ally prov­ing in­ef­fec­tive, some­thing Trump com­plained about.

“It’s very sad that Repub­li­cans, even some that were car­ried over the line on my back, do very lit­tle to pro­tect their pres­i­dent,” he tweeted ahead of the Se­nate’s failed ef­fort to re­peal Oba­macare.

That could be be­cause polls show those who “strongly dis­ap­prove” of Trump out­num­ber those who “strongly ap­prove.” Also, many GOP law­mak­ers dis­tanced them­selves from Trump be­fore last year’s elec­tion, when they ex­pected him to lose, and thus feel less pres­sure to fall in line now.

Trump’s aides have long said that en­cour­ag­ing his love af­fair with his vot­ers and stok­ing the adu­la­tion of crowds at his ral­lies goes be­yond po­lit­i­cal ne­ces­sity: It keeps his spir­its up in tough times.

Last week he even turned an ad­dress to a na­tional Boy Scouts Jam­boree in West Vir­ginia into a po­lit­i­cal rally, en­cour­ag­ing boos for Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama, though that up­set many peo­ple in­side and out­side the tra­di­tion­ally non­par­ti­san Scout­ing com­mu­nity.

The next night, he held forth at the Youngstown rally, calling a self-de­scribed life­long Democrat named Geno DiFabio to the stage. Trump had seen DiFabio on “Fox and Friends,” where he de­scribed his pas­sion for Trump.

DiFabio, wear­ing a large T-shirt that said “Trump Won: Deal with it,” gave Trump a bear hug and praised him for “keep­ing the prom­ises” he had made.

Then he coun­seled the pres­i­dent, “I would tell the Repub­li­cans and the Democrats, ‘Look, I am go­ing to go do my ral­lies. You got the agenda. Those peo­ple are vot­ing for me and mine.’ ”

The crowd roared. Trump nod­ded, smiled and pat­ted DiFabio on the shoul­der.

David Maxwell Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

SUP­PORT­ERS cheer last week at a rally in Ohio where Pres­i­dent Trump reprised his most pop­u­lar at­tacks.

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