Even with a new minder trying to bring some order to the White House, United States President Donald Trump remains in a heap of trouble. The recent installation of retired general John Kelly, formerly Trump’s secretary for homeland security, as chief of staff, replacing the hapless Reince Priebus, has reduced some of the internal chaos and induced a bit more discipline in Trump’s behaviour. But all this could change any day, or at any moment.
Kelly has put a stop to aides sauntering into the Oval Office whenever they felt like it –Trump tends to echo the last person he’s spoken with – and has demanded that papers and memos for the president be submitted to him first. For the time being, at least, the president’s tweeting has been reduced in number and nuttiness.
Keen Trump observers expect that he’ll soon begin to chafe under the discipline Kelly has encouraged. Understanding Trump’s enormous ego, Kelly is said to encourage gently rather than instruct. Kelly also has the advantage of Trump’s high regard for generals.
But Trump could well become incensed by news stories praising Kelly for bringing order to the White House. (Counsellor Steve Bannon never fully recovered in the president’s esteem after he was on the cover of Time magazine soon after the inauguration.)
Meanwhile, Trump’s poll ratings are lower than ever – and the lowest of any president at such an early point in an administration. Members of his own Republican Party are distancing themselves from him.
The recent failure of the Republican-dominated Congress to repeal Barack Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, which made healthcare available for millions of people who previously couldn’t afford it, was a humiliating defeat for Trump. Just enough Republican senators (three, but more were in reserve if needed) voted to reject the last of several efforts to fulfil the party’s vow to replace ‘Obamacare’.
That nickname for the ACA, coined by the Republicans when the law was enacted in early 2010, was intended to be derogatory, and their opposition to the program seemed to be vindicated in that year’s midterm elections, when they swept both houses of congress. But the Republicans didn’t reckon on two things: that as people gained access to health insurance (some 20 million by this year), it became popular – as did Obama, who ended his second term as one of America’s most liked presidents.
Over Obama’s tenure, Republicans came to realise that it was no longer sufficient simply to call for a repeal of ‘Obamacare’, and their rhetoric shifted to the need to “repeal and replace”. They held more than 50 roll-call votes saying that they’d do just that, knowing that it didn’t really matter because Obama would veto any serious repeal. The roll calls were actually fundraisers: Appeals to the unsuspecting Republican base to send money to keep up the fight against the supposedly hated programme.
But when the 2016 election put a Republican in the White House, the party’s congressional leaders had nowhere to hide. The Republicans were now in full control of the government – and they hadn’t a clue about what should replace Obamacare.
At the end of six months in office, Trump doesn’t have a single legislative achievement to crow about (though he has claimed the Senate’s approval of Neil Gorsuch as a new Supreme Court justice as a victory). Significantly, Senate Republican leaders ignored Trump’s demand that they take up repeal and replace of Obamacare again, before they consider any other major issue.
While the healthcare bill was commanding most of the attention on Capitol Hill, another piece of legislation was moving along in the Congress, representing another setback for Trump. Troubled by the president’s apparent soft spot for (or perhaps fear of) Vladimir Putin, overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers passed a bill to impose more sanctions on Russia and – most unusually – to prevent the president from lifting any such penalties. And, because the bill passed with enough votes to override a presidential veto, Trump had little choice but to sign it, which he did in private, without the customary presence of a bill’s sponsors and the press.
Meanwhile, the investigation into Trump and his campaign’s relations with Russia in connection with its meddling in Trump’s favour in the 2016 election has continued out of the public’s sight. That investigation has broadened to include Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his son Donald Jr.
This spring, Trump let it be known that he wanted the special counsel running that investigation, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who is highly respected by both parties, to be fired. He’d already fired FBI director James Comey, but by law, he couldn’t fire Mueller himself, so he tried to bully Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had (appropriately) recused himself from the investigation, into resigning. That way, Trump could appoint a replacement who would fire Mueller.
But Sessions, the first Republican senator to endorse Trump, was enjoying rolling back numerous Obama-era protections in areas like civil rights, and refused to resign. Several of Sessions’ former Senate colleagues also demanded that Trump back off. Though Kelly called Sessions to tell him that his job was safe, Republican senators, concerned that Trump might remove him during the August recess, established a procedure that would prevent Trump from appointing an interim attorney-general to fire Mueller, and warned that such a move would provoke a constitutional crisis.
Then, as Congress prepared to leave for the August recess, it was learned that Mueller – who had hired highly regarded prosecutors specialising in international financial transactions, despite Trump’s warnings not to investigate his finances – had impaneled a grand jury in Washington. The noose tightens.
Elizabeth Drew is a journalist and author
The views expressed are personal
Project Syndicate, 2017