Trump hits re­set with friend­lier au­di­ence

Pres­i­dent holds Fla. rally, re­casts his team and re­news fight with me­dia

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JENNA JOHN­SON AND JOHN WAG­NER

mel­bourne, fla. — Nearly a month into a pres­i­dency full of mis­steps, Don­ald Trump re­turned Satur­day to firmer ground out­side of Wash­ing­ton, stag­ing a rau­cous cam­paign-style rally here with a throng of ador­ing sup­port­ers who helped sweep him into the White House.

For 45 min­utes, there was no talk of the pres­i­dent’s fall­ing ap­proval rat­ings or tur­moil in his ad­min­is­tra­tion. In­stead, Trump rat­tled off fa­mil­iar cam­paign prom­ises, scolded the me­dia, mocked pro­test­ers gath­ered out­side, de­clared that it is “a new day in Amer­ica” and basked in ap­plause from a crowd of 9,000 that waited hours in the sun to see him.

“This will be change for the

ages, change like never be­fore,” Trump thun­dered to­ward the end of his re­marks, which in­cluded sev­eral ex­ag­ger­a­tions and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions about his fledg­ling pres­i­dency.

The air­port hangar event was the clear­est in­di­ca­tion of a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion try­ing to re­group af­ter a tu­mul­tuous first four weeks that have been pro­pelled more by the con­tro­versy of the day than a co­her­ent agenda for gov­ern­ing.

Start­ing with a let-Trump-be-Trump news con­fer­ence on Thurs­day — in which the pres­i­dent said he wanted to speak di­rectly to the Amer­i­can peo­ple with­out the me­dia fil­ter — Trump sought to re­gain con­trol of his pres­i­dency, in­sist­ing that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is “run­ning like a fine-tuned ma­chine” and blam­ing any per­ceived prob­lems on “fake news” and Democrats.

Mean­while, his ad­min­is­tra­tion took steps that seemed aimed at cre­at­ing a fresh start. Trump hired a com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor to ease the bur­den on his em­bat­tled press sec­re­tary, and he is in­ter­view­ing can­di­dates for na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser fol­low­ing the hasty de­par­ture of Michael Flynn. He promised a new ver­sion this week of his now-frozen ex­ec­u­tive or­der on im­mi­gra­tion, which has come to sym­bol­ize his strug­gle to trans­late ag­gres­sive cam­paign goals into pol­icy.

Dur­ing a speech at an aerospace fac­tory in South Carolina on Fri­day af­ter­noon, the pres­i­dent re­turned to the is­sues that made him pop­u­lar in the first place: job cre­ation, re­strict­ing trade and put­ting Amer­ica first. He did not men­tion the me­dia, al­though he bragged about win­ning the state’s pri­mary.

“Ex­cept for the fact that he doesn’t have a big plastic but­ton, this cer­tainly looks like a re­set,” said Ti­mothy Naf­tali, a pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian at New York Univer­sity, re­fer­ring to a prop that then-sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton gave to the Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter in 2009. He called Trump’s rally on Satur­day “an at­tempt to in­ject some adren­a­line into his ad­min­is­tra­tion and shake a per­cep­tion of loser­dom.”

In an in­ter­view Satur­day, how- White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus dis­puted the no­tion that a re­set was in the works.

“I wouldn’t call it a re­set be­cause we’re quite proud of a lot of the achieve­ments over the past four weeks,” he said, cit­ing ef­forts to cut reg­u­la­tions on busi­nesses and three for­eign-leader vis­its, among other de­vel­op­ments. “I think we’ve ac­com­plished a lot. I think the me­dia has been fix­ated on a cou­ple of is­sues that are to­tally bogus.”

But Priebus and deputy press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders ac­knowl­edged that the White House is mov­ing to put Trump out front more — a de­ci­sion San­ders at­trib­uted to frus­tra­tion with me­dia cover­age. Satur­day’s rally could be the first in a se­ries of such events, she said.

“There’s def­i­nitely frus­tra­tion that the me­dia makes up sto­ries and re­ports things that aren’t true,” San­ders said, adding that the Thurs­day news con­fer­ence and Satur­day rally were at­tempts “for the pres­i­dent to speak di­rectly to the Amer­i­can peo­ple and not have his mes­sage fil­tered through a bi­ased me­dia.”

Kellyanne Con­way, a coun­selor to Trump, said “it gives him oxy­gen and it re­minds him why he’s here, why he’s do­ing it.”

Though Trump claimed at Thurs­day’s news con­fer­ence that there is “zero chaos” in his White House, he ac­knowl­edged that Priebus is spend­ing time “put­ting out fires” that he would rather spend work­ing on ad­min­is­tra­tion pri­or­i­ties, such as re­plac­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act and reever, struc­tur­ing the tax code.

Priebus said Satur­day that he has spent too much time try­ing to ad­dress me­dia re­ports but added: “I can do more than one thing at a time, so no one needs to worry about that.”

If the White House was try­ing to in­still a greater sense of dis­ci­pline and project an aura of com­pe­tence at the end of the week, those no­tions were un­der­mined by a fresh pair of con­tro­ver­sies Fri­day.

The pres­i­dent’s scripted speech in South Carolina was over­shad­owed by an As­so­ci­ated Press re­port on a memo drafted by the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity that pro­posed us­ing the Na­tional Guard to round up un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants — a plan the White House said is no longer on the ta­ble. Later in the day, Trump tweeted that the news me­dia is “the enemy of the Amer­i­can Peo­ple!”

Many of the news re­ports that the pres­i­dent has la­beled false are fac­tual but con­tain in­for­ma­tion he does not like, from re­ports of the crowd size at his in­au­gu­ra­tion to the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s find­ing that Rus­sia med­dled in the U.S. elec­tion.

Trump also hit a new low Fri­day in a daily track­ing poll by Gallup: Just 38 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said they ap­prove of the job he is do­ing, while 56 per­cent dis­ap­prove. The sur­vey is among many that show him to be the least pop­u­lar new pres­i­dent in modern times.

Trump has dis­missed un­fa­vor­able polling num­bers as “fake news” and dur­ing his news con­fer­ence on Thurs­day pointed to a Ras­mussen poll that is an out­lier among re­cent sur­veys, say­ing it “has me through the roof.” That poll showed him with a 55 per­cent job ap­proval rat­ing.

Repub­li­can al­lies ac­knowl­edge that there are dan­gers for Trump if his num­bers drop in the dis­tricts of GOP law­mak­ers, whose sup­port he needs to pass an am­bi­tious agenda that in­cludes in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing and other mea­sures that they view with skep­ti­cism.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) said last week that he is “not a great fan of daily tweets” but said he re­mains ea­ger to work with Trump on com­mon aims.

The rally on Satur­day — like a “thank you tour” that fol­lowed Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory — is de­signed in part to re­mind mem­bers of Congress of the pres­i­dent’s pop­u­lar­ity in many ar­eas be­yond the Belt­way.

“He was re­luc­tant to do a lot of travel in his first month in of­fice,” said Barry Ben­nett, a Repub­li­can strate­gist who served as an ad­viser to Trump dur­ing the gen­eral­elec­tion cam­paign. “But I think this is a wise move. It re­in­forces to any doubt­ing Repub­li­cans that there are mil­lions and mil­lions of peo­ple across Amer­ica who want the same things he wants.”

The pres­i­dent’s rally on Satur­day evening was nearly iden­ti­cal to those he held dur­ing the cam­paign. His warm-up acts riled the crowd up with talk of im­mi­gra­tion and gun rights, along with at­tacks on the me­dia, with one speaker glee­fully say­ing the pres­i­dent was “spank­ing” the me­dia.

Al­though the White House said Thurs­day that Air Force One would not be used as a “prop” at the rally, the iconic air­liner pulled up to the hangar as the theme song from the 1997 movie “Air Force One” played — the same the­atrics that were a hall­mark of Trump’s cam­paign ral­lies.

“Life is a cam­paign,” Trump told re­porters just be­fore the rally. “Mak­ing our coun­try great again is a cam­paign. For me, it’s a cam­paign.”

And just as he did dur­ing the cam­paign, the pres­i­dent re­peat­edly ex­ag­ger­ated or dis­torted the

truth — claim­ing that he low­ered the price of a new Air Force One with­out work­ing more than an hour, blam­ing for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama for leav­ing him a “mess,” claim­ing that “the White House is run­ning so smoothly” de­spite nu­mer­ous in­di­ca­tions it is not and ac­cus­ing the me­dia of not fea­tur­ing his sup­port­ers.

Such pub­lic ap­pear­ances out­side of Wash­ing­ton re­flect a be­lief within the White House that Trump has been un­der­uti­lized in mak­ing his case in re­cent weeks.

“Af­ter sev­eral weeks of tur­moil, it’s get­ting back to what worked for him as a can­di­date,” said Doug Heye, a Repub­li­can strate­gist. “Trump has al­ways been his most ef­fec­tive ad­vo­cate.”

Rick Wil­son, a GOP strate­gist who has been one of Trump’s fiercest crit­ics, said that Trump’s news con­fer­ence on Thurs­day showed the coun­try is no longer di­vided be­tween those on the left or the right but be­tween those who saw the 77-minute spec­ta­cle as a “suc­cess” and those who are now “ter­ri­fied” about the fu­ture of the na­tion.

“The thing could have been ev­i­dence in a men­tal com­pe­tency hear­ing,” he said. “It was re­ally pretty dis­turb­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing to watch this guy and think: ‘What hap­pens when the stakes are higher?’ ”

Some both inside and out­side the White House blame Trump’s re­cent prob­lems on staff, not the pres­i­dent, and the young ages of many aides of­ten come up in com­plaints from those close to Trump. Priebus has also faced in­creas­ing pres­sure from Repub­li­cans to bet­ter con­trol the pres­i­dent and rid the White House of on­go­ing tur­moil and chaos — which prob­a­bly would mean telling the pres­i­dent “no” on some things.

But John Weaver, a GOP strate­gist who worked on the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich (R), said re­spon­si­bil­ity ul­ti­mately lies with the pres­i­dent.

“He’s not able to gov­ern right now,” said Weaver, a long­time critic of Trump. “He can shuf­fle around staff but un­til he un­der­stands he has to have dis­ci­pline, and not just dis­ci­pline in mes­sage, noth­ing is go­ing to change.”

White House aides are hope­ful that the in­stal­la­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Mike Dubke will bring more sta­bil­ity to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mes­sag­ing. For the past month, Sean Spicer has held both the press sec­re­tary and com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor jobs — a pe­riod that has co­in­cided with lam­poon­ing of his con­tentious daily press brief­ings on “Satur­day Night Live.”

“There needs to be some­one who gets up in the morn­ing and doesn’t fight to­day’s bat­tles but can think about the next week and the next month,” Ben­nett said.

Dubke is a vet­eran Repub­li­can me­dia strate­gist and founder of Cross­roads Me­dia based in Alexandria, Va. Some Trump loy­al­ists chafed at the idea of re­cruit­ing an es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­can op­er­a­tive with ties to strate­gist Karl Rove and other forces they see as hav­ing been hos­tile to Trump’s can­di­dacy.

“How does this help serve the pres­i­dent’s in­ter­ests?” asked one Trump in­sider, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity and claimed to be chan­nel­ing the views of sev­eral oth­ers in Trump’s or­bit. “It serves the in­ter­ests of Reince and Sean, but I don’t see how it serves the pres­i­dent’s in­ter­ests.”

Trump also ap­pears de­ter­mined to move quickly to ap­point a new na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and move be­yond the con­tro­versy that sur­rounded Flynn, who was asked to re­sign amid ques­tions about his con­tacts with Rus­sia and mis­lead­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Pence about the na­ture of a call with the coun­try’s am­bas­sador af­ter the elec­tion.

On Thurs­day, news broke that Trump’s top pick for a re­place­ment, re­tired Vice Adm. Robert Har­ward, had turned down the job of­fer. By Fri­day morn­ing, Trump had taken to Twit­ter to share a short­list, in­clud­ing re­tired Lt. Gen. Keith Kel­logg, who is cur­rently in the job as act­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser.

Spicer told re­porters Satur­day that Trump plans to talk to at least four can­di­dates on Sun­day, in­clud­ing John Bolton, a for­mer United Na­tions am­bas­sador; Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster; Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the su­per­in­ten­dent of the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point; and Kel­logg.

The com­ing week also presents a chance for Trump to redo an ex­ec­u­tive or­der is­sued early in his ten­ure that tem­po­rar­ily barred cit­i­zens of seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries and all refugees from en­ter­ing the United States, os­ten­si­bly so of­fi­cials could re­view and tighten screen­ing pro­ce­dures.

The pro­gram’s chaotic roll­out was widely panned and court rul­ings have now put the or­der on hold.

Trump said ad­min­is­tra­tion lawyers are work­ing on a new ver­sion that will be “tai­lored” to the con­cerns raised by the courts.

“We don’t give up. We never give up,” Trump told the crowd at his rally here. “We will do some­thing next week. I think you’ll be im­pressed.”

KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

Pres­i­dent Trump hugs a sup­porter he in­vited on­stage dur­ing a rally inside a hangar at Or­lando Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Satur­day in Mel­bourne, Fla. The rally is de­signed in part to re­mind Congress of Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity in many ar­eas be­yond the Belt­way.

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