Six months in, Trump wants more Trump
Advisers urged to allow free expression
After six turbulent months of rattling the status quo at home and abroad, President Trump wants to give the world an even bigger dose of his unique brand of leadership.
Mr. Trump punctuated his first six months in office with more staff changes in the West Wing, hiring Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci as his communications director and accepting the resignation of embattled press secretary Sean Spicer.
“We’re going to focus and refine the messaging from the White House,” Mr. Scaramucci said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He’s one of the most effective communicators that’s ever been born, and we’re going to make sure that we get that message out directly to the American people.”
And in a head-snapping revelation, Mr. Scaramucci said the unorthodox tweeter in chief believes his advisers need to let Trump be Trump even more often.
“We were talking about letting him be himself, letting him express his full identity,” Mr. Scaramucci said after emerging from an Oval Office meeting with the president. “I think it’s super important for us to let him express his personality.”
As if to underscore that point, Mr. Trump launched a series of tweets over the weekend targeting “crooked Hillary,” intelligence leaks, “fake news” and obstructionist Democrats. He criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and asserted his “complete power to pardon.”
At the halfway mark of his first year in office, Mr. Trump’s aggressive style and relentless focus on the economy have produced encouraging results. His push to cut regulations, his constant courting of industry leaders, his hands-on approach to trade and his plans to cut corporate taxes have reassured employers, who have added nearly 900,000 jobs since January. The Dow Jones index has risen more than 18 percent since his election in November.
“He’s done a lot of good things on the regulatory side,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “Consumer confidence is at an all-time high, wages are going up for low-wage workers, that’s all positive. The unemployment rate [of 4.4 percent in June] is pretty low. The economy is not growing as quickly as it should be, but you can see there’s room for it to grow.”
Slightly more Americans approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of the economy, 43 percent, than disapprove, 41 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Saturday.
In the courts, Mr. Trump’s goal of forging a more conservative judiciary is well underway, starting with the successful nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
On the national security front, Mr. Trump’s temporary travel ban has been largely upheld by the high court. Illegal immigration on the border with Mexico has been reduced by about two-thirds since Mr. Trump took office.
The U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has made steady gains. Mr. Trump is calling out NATO members publicly to pay more of their fair share for the defense alliance.
“He’s transformed the bully pulpit like no other president,” said Trump friend and Newsmax Media CEO Christopher Ruddy. “He’s used everything from unscripted press [appearances] to thunderous tweets to get every boardroom in America talking about keeping jobs here, getting countries like China to open up their business markets, getting 22 countries in NATO to start increasing their military spending. Just by talking about getting tough on the border and immigration, border crossings have dropped over 60 percent. This is the amazing record of the Trump presidency.”
Yet Mr. Trump’s job approval rating is a historically low 39.9 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, his relationship with congressional Republicans is strained and with Democrats is nonexistent, his Russia legal problems are expanding, and his top legislative priorities of health care reform and tax cuts are going nowhere fast.
“Even after six months, he and his team have totally failed to understand how Capitol Hill works,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who worked 21 years in Congress for lawmakers such as Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. “When it comes to legislation, it’s the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mr. Manley pointed to the administration’s stymied effort to repeal and replace Obamacare in the Senate.
“Whether it’s setting deadlines that are no longer reachable, whether it’s blindsiding the Hill, the president’s flip-flopping on the health care policy three different times in about 24 hours, it’s sowed utter and complete chaos on Capitol Hill,” he said. “That’s despite the fact that [Republicans] control all three branches of government.”
In another rebuff of the president, congressional leaders announced Saturday that they had reached a final agreement on legislation that would codify penalties imposed on Russia by the Obama administration and would require Mr. Trump to seek approval from Congress if he wants to lift the sanctions.
Mr. Feehery said Mr. Trump and his advisers committed a major tactical blunder with Congress in their first six months by taking aim at Obamacare before securing easier legislative victories.
“I think his biggest mistake was taking up health care first,” he said. “They should have focused on taxes and infrastructure. He’s not focused like a laser beam on his legislative agenda.”
Mr. Scaramucci said political opponents consistently underestimate Mr. Trump.
“I predict that the president will get a win in health care … just because I’ve seen him in operation over the last 20-plus years,” he said. “The president has really good karma, OK? He’s genuinely a wonderful human being, and I think as members of Congress get to know him better and get comfortable with him, they’re going to let him lead them to the right things for the American people. So I think we’re going to get the health care done. I also think we’re going to get tax reform done.”
After six months, it will come as no surprise that Mr. Trump blames news media for failing to spread the word of his achievements.
“We have accomplished so much, and we are being given credit for so little,” the president said. “The good news is the people get it, even if the media doesn’t.”
Mr. Trump’s war with “fake news” media has intensified since his inauguration. Mr. Ruddy pointed to a study by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Mr. Trump’s first 100 days in office, which showed press coverage by major media outlets was 80 percent negative. The numbers for previous presidents during their first 100 days: Barack Obama, 41 percent negative; George W. Bush, 57 percent negative; and Bill Clinton, 60 percent negative.
“I think the president and his whole White House team have been frustrated by the constant barrage of media attacks,” Mr. Ruddy said. “The story of the first six months is the war against the president by the major media. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it.”
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week, 60 percent of respondents agreed with this assertion: “The news media and other elites are exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration because they are uncomfortable and threatened with the kind of change that Trump represents.”
Despite bleak poll numbers, White House officials say Mr. Trump hasn’t lost support among his base, particularly in blue-collar communities in swing states and in traditional Republican territory. Polls bear that out, and there is anecdotal evidence to support that view.
Michael Blichasz, president of the Polish American Cultural Center in Philadelphia, sounds out visitors surreptitiously about Mr. Trump and said he finds support for the president is still strong in that ethnic community. Polish-American voters in Pennsylvania and other industrial battleground states played an important role in Mr. Trump’s victory in November.
“Many of the people who came to our museum in the last six months or so — people of many nationalities — say they are hopeful that there will be major changes in the country, and they see that there’s a tremendous focus on bringing problems to the forefront,” Mr. Blichasz said. “Maybe [Mr. Trump] is a little rough around the edges at times, but he is the person that I think can bring [bureaucrats] out of the shadows. There’s been too many people running the country in the shadows who put the country almost $20 trillion in debt.”
He added, “If the press would focus more time on how we can stand together to change our country for the best, I believe things would be even better in the future. I am hopeful that this man will have everybody refocus on how we’re going to do more business in America.’’
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was promoted to the post upon Mr. Spicer’s resignation, said Trump supporters have been energized by his accomplishments in the first six months.
“Stock market’s at a high, jobs are growing, regulations are coming off, the country’s becoming more secure, the border’s becoming more secure, immigration is down,” she said. “I think we have a lot of things to celebrate.”
But investigations into suspected collusion between Trump campaign officials and Moscow before the election last year appear to be picking up steam. Mr. Mueller has expanded the probe into Trump family finances, and several key figures are set to answer questions from congressional committees this week. Mr. Trump made changes to his legal team last week as he continued to label the whole affair a “witch hunt.”
Mr. Feehery said the best tactic for the president, however unlikely for the social media warrior, would be to stop talking and tweeting about Russia.
“He drives the story,” Mr. Feehery said. “He’s got to let it go. If there are revelations, he only makes it worse by responding to them.”
He said the political danger is reminiscent of the Whitewater scandal in the Clinton administration — years of investigation culminating in a personal scandal that paralyzed the presidency.
“It was a constant part of the Clintons’ White House, and it led to a real paranoia within the Clinton administration and really undermined his ability to get some things done,” Mr. Feehery said. “The concern for Trump is if he loses control of the legislative agenda and Democrats take over the House next year. [House Democratic leader Nancy] Pelosi is not simpatico with anything he wants to do. She’s really partisan.”
He said Mr. Trump must “figure out a way to make sure he does the best he can to keep the House in Republican hands.”
“But that means getting some legislative accomplishments,” Mr. Feehrey said. “They’ve got to get the tax cuts as soon as possible.”
At the halfway mark of his first year in office, President Trump’s aggressive style and relentless focus on the economy have produced encouraging results, but a Republican Party strategist says he and his team have made some major blunders.