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White House looks to steady ship after week from hell

Illustration of the White House sinking into the ground, with a rope trying to pull it out
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The White House is trying to dig itself out of a self-inflicted crisis on Capitol Hill after a hellish week.

Driving the news: President Trump has signaled 3 moves that, while modest in substance, throw scraps of reassurance to anxious Republicans.

  1. A tactical truce with China that pauses the trade war, calms the markets, forestalls planned tariff hikes, and clears the way for Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural products.
  2. A tweet that he is likely to support sanctions against Turkey for its invasion of northern Syria, which has led to the slaughter of America's Kurdish allies and the escape of ISIS prisoners. (Trump is trying to clean up after he cleared the way for Turkey's invasion last Sunday night.)
  3. A deployment of an additional 1,800 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to discourage Iranian aggression.

Behind the scenes: Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and senior diplomat Jim Jeffrey have been working behind the scenes with Trump to encourage him to put pressure on Erdogan, per sources with direct knowledge.

  • And Trump is coming to the view that he probably has no choice but to support Congress' impending Turkey sanctions, per these sources. An overwhelming majority of Congress — likely enough to override a presidential veto — appears poised to move on these sanctions.
  • Erdoğan has few friends these days on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers from both parties have been waiting for an opportunity to punish him for his deal with Russia to buy the S-400 missile system. Trump made these sanctions a near certainty from the moment he blindsided allies by announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria — thus abandoning the Kurds.
  • The White House guaranteed this turmoil on the Hill by blindsiding crucial partners, including the Israelis, key Republican senators and the Christian right.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed hard for the additional troop deployment to Saudi to deter Iran. He did so over the objections of other national security officials, according to a senior administration official.

The big picture: Republican senators are increasingly spooked after being blindsided by weighty presidential decisions, a shift in public opinion toward impeachment, the absence of direction from the White House on impeachment, the fear of what other unknown scandals are still out there, and the daily controversies that all seem to involve the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

  • Trump has "had a terrible 30–40 days," a source close to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. The China truce "stabilized the markets and consumer psychology," the source added. "As far as I'm concerned, this is as serious as a heart attack."

Between the lines: Five White House officials tell me they were relieved by the stabilizing moves, but several expressed skepticism the trend can hold through the week. "This is the pattern of the past 3 years," said a senior White House official. "[Trump] pushes things as far as they can go, to breaking point, and then pulls back. It happens again and again."

  • Another senior official expressed hope that everyone in the White House wakes up to the dangers Trump faces on Capitol Hill.
  • This official acknowledged a split in the White House: One group is naively oblivious to a risk that the bottom could fall out of Trump's support in the Senate. Another group is convinced it can't take Senate Republican support for granted, even though most senators still fear Trump because the Republican base has totally bonded to him.