THE ISOLATED PRESIDENT
Trump struggles for victories with establishment
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.