Jan 16, 2018 - Politics & Policy

The recidivism presidency


Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

After a triumphant end to 2017, White House sources tell Axios that they see a dangerous pattern forming for this year: a backslide into bad habits of the chaotic early days of the Trump presidency.

Be smart: The White House should be making the best use of their ultimate salesman and tool — Donald Trump and the power of the presidency — to sell its tax cuts, low unemployment and surging market. Instead, Trump has Fox on the tube, and Twitter by his trigger finger.

  • White House officials had a solid game plan for January: do a long tax-cut victory lap, avoid a government shutdown and swing a DACA deal. Instead, Trump became preoccupied with a gossipy book and the treachery of Steve Bannon, made repeated bizarre public statements about his mental health, misrepresented crucial national security legislation, and sent immigration talks down a “shithole.”
  • Tax reform focused everyone. With its passage, there's now a bit of a vacuum that has been filled with fighting these wild fires.
  • Trump has been newly consumed by the kind of grievances that make some Rs cringe and regret their silence. 
  • "What is the White House about right now?” asked a source close to Trump. “I don't know.”
  • Chief of Staff John Kelly still has his orderly system firmly in place — there has been no let-up. But the Kelly bubble and schedule restrictions leave the President with more Fox time, and time for tangents.
  • Worth noting: Trump had agreed to give Kelly carte blanche authority as chief of staff. But Trump seems to be rebelling against that system, and some aides are worried it could keep deteriorating.

What’s next: White House officials recognize they need to tout the tax cuts as a big accomplishment. We're likely going to see POTUS out around the country, selling it in the near future.

  • A senior administration official said: "I think 'backsliding' is exaggerated. We know what Donald Trump brought to Washington, D.C. — what the American public elected him for — was disruption. So it’s always going to be a rollercoaster."
  • More from the official: "As far as the hysteria ... He loves that you guys go crazy, so he’s going to keep doing it. There’s a part of media in this town that doesn’t say, 'You got taxes done, you fixed the regulatory environment" — something average Americans get.

These three recent events have alarmed some senior administration officials:

  1. Trump's "shithole" (Or was it "shithouse"?) comment that was promptly leaked to the media. You had House Speaker Paul Ryan denouncing it; one Republican in the room (Sen. Lindsey Graham) effectively confirming it; and others, like Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, saying Trump never said what he was reported to have said.
  2. Trump's over-the-top response to Michael Wolff's book. When most people had moved on, Trump was still ranting about the book, publicly and privately. He continued to tweet about Wolff, which only served to further highlight the material in his book and drive more sales. He remains livid about it. 
  3. Trump's loose tweet — which he was pressured to walk back — in which he misrepresented and publicly trashed crucial national security legislation (FISA) just before the House was due to vote on the bill. 

Why this matters: Kelly has worked wonders to impose process over what was an insanely chaotic and dysfunctional West Wing. He never promised to tame Trump's Twitter feed. But he had previously noted with satisfaction to aides that there'd been less of the wild, policy-affecting tweets that distinguished the early White House days.

  • Republicans inside the administration and on Capitol Hill are becoming increasingly alarmed by the prospects for the 2018 midterms. The White House political operation is still considered lightweight, and officials are still scratching around to fill the external-facing Office of Public Liaison.
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