Trump strug­gles for vic­to­ries with es­tab­lish­ment

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER

Pres­i­dent Trump won the White House by run­ning against the es­tab­lish­ment and now suf­fers the con­se­quences of hav­ing vir­tu­ally no sup­port in Wash­ing­ton, aban­doned by his party lead­ers on Capi­tol Hill and drown­ing in a tor­rent of leaks from in­side the govern­ment ap­pa­ra­tus.

A shake-up in his press of­fice on Tues­day won’t be nearly enough to break out of the agenda-crip­pling iso­la­tion that he is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, an­a­lysts say.

Five months into of­fice, Mr. Trump has a broad set of goals but has strug­gled to trans­late them into ac­tion. Health care and tax re­form bills are search­ing for trac­tion on Capi­tol Hill, and no big bi­par­ti­san deals are in sight.

Michael T. Cor­gan, a U.S. pres­i­dency scholar at Bos­ton Univer­sity’s Pardee School of Global Stud­ies, said you have to go back to An­drew John­son in 1865 to find a U.S. pres­i­dent as iso­lated as Mr. Trump. John­son, the successor to Abra­ham Lin­coln, never man­aged to make in­roads in Congress, barely sur­vived an im­peach­ment trial and was ousted af­ter one term.

“Trump can and does com­mu­ni­cate with his base in a way that John­son couldn’t — in­nu­mer­able tweets and pep ral­lies in states he won. But he has got to find some­one who can work be­tween him and the Congress con­trolled by his (sup­posed) own party. An ob­se­quious Cab­i­net isn’t enough,” Mr. Cor­gan said.

The pro­fes­sor added: “He may not like Wash­ing­ton in­sid­ers and politi­cians, but he had bet­ter find one that is ac­cept­able to him, even if only for a while.”

At­tempt­ing to get his pres­i­dency on track, Mr. Trump be­gan re­or­ga­niz­ing the White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions team.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, whose com­bat­ive ex­changes with re­porters at daily brief­ings has be­come leg­endary, is be­ing re­moved from the podium and will take a top be­hind-the-scenes job run­ning the press shop.

The move af­ter just five months in of­fice ac­knowl­edged White House dif­fi­cul­ties in deal­ing with an an­tag­o­nis­tic press corps and con­trol­ling the nar­ra­tive in Wash­ing­ton.

From his first day in the Oval Of­fice, Mr. Trump re­ceived only ten­ta­tive sup­port from the Repub­li­can Party in Wash­ing­ton. He also came un­der un­re­lent­ing at­tacks from Democrats and the news me­dia over sus­pi­cions of col­lud­ing with Moscow to rig the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in his fa­vor.

The con­gres­sional probes and a Jus­tice Depart­ment spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion that fol­lowed, as well as daily charges from Democrats that Mr. Trump and his cam­paign were in­volved in trea­sonous acts that ren­dered his pres­i­dency il­le­git­i­mate, met scant push­back from Repub­li­can lead­ers in Congress.

The crux of the con­gres­sional Repub­li­can de­fense of the pres­i­dent has been to point out that the in­ves­ti­ga­tions, in­clud­ing a nearly year­long FBI probe, have failed to pro­duce any ev­i­dence of col­lu­sion.

That line of de­fense has been re­peated by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can who vac­il­lated about en­dors­ing Mr. Trump when he se­cured the party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion last year.

Repub­li­can in­sid­ers in­sisted that Mr. Ryan was too busy push­ing the pres­i­dent’s agenda through the House to con­stantly deal with ques­tions about Rus­sia.

The Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions, how­ever, con­tinue to be the most per­sis­tent and ef­fec­tive di­ver­sions from the White House agenda.

The Repub­li­cans’ limp re­sponse to the Rus­sia ac­cu­sa­tions were brought into sharp fo­cus when Sen. Tom Cot­ton of Arkansas mocked the in­ves­ti­ga­tion at a hear­ing last week of the Se­nate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence. The sen­a­tor com­pared the ac­cu­sa­tions to a plot from a James Bond or Ja­son Bourne spy movie.

“Have you ever in any of these fan­tas­ti­cal sit­u­a­tions heard of a plot­line so ridicu­lous that a sit­ting United States sen­a­tor and an am­bas­sador of a for­eign govern­ment col­luded at an open set­ting with hun­dreds of other peo­ple to pull off the great­est ca­per in the his­tory of es­pi­onage?” Mr. Cot­ton asked At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, who was caught up in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“Thank you for say­ing that, Sen. Cot­ton,” said Mr. Ses­sions, a for­mer sen­a­tor who was on the hot seat for at­tend­ing a re­cep­tion where the Rus­sian am­bas­sador was present. “It’s just like through the look­ing glass. I mean, what is this?”

The ex­change was a rare oc­ca­sion when a Repub­li­can law­maker chal­lenged the premise of ac­cu­sa­tions against Mr. Trump and his as­so­ciates.

By com­par­i­son, Democrats in the 1990s of­ten ob­jected to independent coun­sel Kenneth W. Starr’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton in the White­wa­ter real es­tate scan­dal and the Mon­ica Lewin­sky af­fair.

“There are very few prom­i­nent Repub­li­cans who are openly crit­i­ciz­ing him. At the same time, there are very few who are of­fer­ing a full-throated de­fense of him,” said Repub­li­can strate­gist Ryan Wil­liams.

He blamed un­cer­tainty caused by the “er­ratic na­ture” of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the Rus­sia is­sue.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence il­lus­trated the dilemma fac­ing Mr. Trump’s would-be de­fend­ers, he said.

Mr. Pence went on TV to vouch that Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Michael Flynn hadn’t dis­cussed sanc­tions with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador. Later, an in­tel­li­gence agency leak of an in­ter­cepted phone call be­tween Mr. Flynn and the Rus­sian am­bas­sador showed that they had dis­cussed sanc­tions.

The rev­e­la­tion em­bar­rassed Mr. Pence and cost Mr. Flynn his White House job.

Mr. Pence also went on TV to con­firm that Mr. Trump fired FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey be­cause of his mis­han­dling of the Hil­lary Clin­ton email in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which at the time was the rea­son given by the White House. Two days later, Mr. Trump con­tra­dicted Mr. Pence and said Mr. Comey was fired be­cause of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“No­body wants to get put out on a limb that some­one might saw off. That’s just com­mon sense,” said Mr. Wil­liams. “Peo­ple don’t know what’s com­ing next. It makes it dif­fi­cult for your surrogates and al­lies to de­fend the pres­i­dent when they don’t know what to ex­pect from him and the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

The un­cer­tainty stems, in part, from in­tel­li­gence agency leaks that are de­signed to cast sus­pi­cion of wrong­do­ing over the White House.

Ja­son Ross Arnold, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity who spe­cial­izes in govern­ment se­crecy and leaks, said the vol­ume and scope of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion leaks is un­prece­dented.

He said the leak­ers in the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, mil­i­tary and State Depart­ment are likely Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion holdovers and deep-state bu­reau­crats ei­ther op­posed to or alarmed by Mr. Trump.

“Many for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials who de­spise Trump still have clear­ances. It is sur­pris­ing that they re­tain those clear­ances,” said Mr. Arnold, au­thor of the new book “Se­cret-Spillers: Whistle­blow­ers, Leak­ers, and Their Net­works, from Snow­den to Samiz­dat.”

“Some of the leaks from the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity prob­a­bly have a par­ti­san com­po­nent, yet my sense is that many in the CIA, FBI and NSA sin­cerely be­lieve Pres­i­dent Trump poses a unique dan­ger to Amer­i­can na­tional se­cu­rity and in­ter­ests,” he said. “Maybe they know some­thing we do not. But I sus­pect that much of the op­po­si­tion, in the agen­cies and out, comes more from their per­cep­tions of what Trump might do than what he has al­ready done.”


Pres­i­dent Trump has been aban­doned and un­de­fended by his party’s lead­ers on Capi­tol Hill. At­tempt­ing to get his pres­i­dency on track, he has be­gun re­or­ga­niz­ing his com­mu­ni­ca­tions team.

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