Can U.S. President Donald Trump save his presidency?
Donald Trump’s first six months in the White House have been a riot of scandal, chaos and outrage that—absent a major course correction—could spell doom for his entire administration.
All U.S. presidents face crises that seem to sweep the White House from its moorings. Abraham Lincoln struggled through a bloody Civil War. Bill Clinton was humiliated by muckraking investigations. Barack Obama took five months to plug a devastating oil spill and even longer to right the economy.
But few presidents have caused such outrage or faced such a multitude of crises as Donald Trump has in his first six months.
“To be consumed by scandal from day one is not good, no major legislation is not good, to have approval ratings that are so low and the potential for Republican defections, all of this is not what you expect,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University. Trump swaggered into office on Jan. 20 declaring Washington was broke and only a killer businessman such as himself could fix it. That promise looks increasingly threadbare.
The White House remains understaffed, under-skilled and struggling to attract new talent. Existing staff admits to being exhausted and demoralized.
Trump’s political agenda has been blown to smithereens: The border “wall” has not been built, NAFTA has not been torn up, the Iran deal is still in place and Obamacare remains the law of the land. Even with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, the influential and nominally supportive Drudge Report declared this the “MOST UNPRODUCTIVE CONGRESS IN 164 YEARS.”
Oratorically, Trump has continued where his campaign left off, picking fights with the press, judges, his own party, Democrats and FBI director James Comey, whom he fired. All the while, a drip, drip of evidence has amplified allegations that his family and aides sought help from Russia to tip the election against Hillary Clinton.
There have been bright spots. The Islamic State group has been virtually defeated in Mosul and in Raqa, the capital of the so-called caliphate, is besieged. Trump has fulfilled his promise to scrap a trans-pacific trade deal, and successfully appointed conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But Trump wins have been few and far between. “I don’t see these six months as a success and it’s hard for me to see the argument that it was,” said Zelizer.
But presidents can and do right the course. Bill Clinton’s first term was notoriously difficult and like Trump he suffered an early and embarrassing legislative defeat on healthcare. “History is full of examples of presidents who learn from their mistakes and go on to have major legislative successes,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist at Firehouse Strategies who served in George W. Bush’s administration. “Presidents are ultimately judged on what they get done and he’s only six months in. There is still plenty of time for them to do a lot. He could still end up being a highly successful president.”
But changes would be needed, Conant admits. Even Republicans have criticized Trump’s recent failed efforts to push his own healthcare reforms over the line. With little policy background, Trump has seemed more at home with the theater of the presidency: preferring military parades in Paris to making policy speeches and wrangling votes.
“A couple of meetings with Senators and a handful of tweets is not going to cut it on something as controversial as healthcare reform,” said Conant. But, he argues, Trump still has the time and some of the skills needed to secure victories, as long as he is willing to make the pitch.
“His entire life he’s been a very good marketer and during the campaign he did an amazing job energizing the conservative base,” Conant said. “Those are the skills he needs to now apply to governing. In his previous life he was marketing everything from steaks to bottled water to condos with his name on it. Now tax reform is going to have his name on it.”
But Trump’s character could equally prove his administration’s worst enemy. “A lot of the problems he faces are him, and he’s not going to change his personality,” said Zelizer.
Michael Signer, the Democratic Mayor of Charlottesville and a lecturer at the University of Virginia said “the path to legitimacy” for Trump “would be to signal his embrace of our traditional norms and our checks and balances.”
“The more he refuses to do that, the lower his numbers will go, the more illegitimate his presidency will get and the more desperate he will get.” If nothing changes, Trump’s approval ratings—already historically low at 40 percent—could portend a shellacking in the 2018 midterm elections.
“If Democrats strengthen their size or gain power in one or both chambers then the president is in for a ride,” said Zelizer, predicting impeachment hearings and wholesale pushback. “The more cornered he feels, he’s not going to have some diplomatic response. He’ll get angry, he’ll attack his attackers. I don’t think it gets calmer or pretty in the Oval Office, I think as things get intense it’s going to get much uglier.”