Saturday 23 September 2017

Presidency of Donald Trump... In chaos, and at a crossroads

This week, the US president's approval rating dipped below 40pc for the first time as the Republican party started to question its allegiance to Trump. Now the future of his presidency hinges on the outcome of an inquiry into Russian election meddling and whether the new chief of staff can restore order in the West Wing, writes Professor Robert Schmuhl

Change of heart: President Donald Trump and his new gatekeeper John Kelly
Change of heart: President Donald Trump and his new gatekeeper John Kelly

Less than seven months in the White House, the presidency of Donald Trump is already at a crossroads. Will upcoming weeks signal an end to his chaotic apprenticeship, or will America - and the world - continue to watch misstep after misstep of an administration that often resembles a slapstick farce?

During the past week, the West Wing's revolving door has been spinning overtime, marking arrivals and departures in several key positions: chief of staff, director of communications and press secretary. How long will this game of musical chairs, all to the tune of 'Hail to the Chief', continue?

By becoming Trump's chief of staff this week, former four-star Marine General John Kelly assumed command of one of the most difficult positions inside or outside the government. According to knowledgeable assessments, his new workplace features contending power centres and less than collegial comportment.

With incredible speed, Anthony Scaramucci was named communications director but before his business cards were printed, he'd been sacked for telling a magazine reporter that Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, was a "paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac", with an unprintable expletive preceding his amateur diagnosis.

Scaramucci also delivered a foul-mouthed punch in the nose to strategist Steve Bannon in the same interview, and earlier he'd pushed Sean Spicer out of the press secretary's job. In retrospect, it almost seemed as though a bomber was roaming the West Wing, blowing up everything in his path.

Kelly's first structural assignment will be to create discipline and restore order among the White House staff. Traditionally, his post has served as gatekeeper of the Oval Office, controlling people wanting access to the president and the flow of paperwork.

Until Kelly's arrival, Trump operated with an open-door policy, allowing high-level staff members to make a point or pitch an idea with ease. Trump family members such as daughter Ivanka or son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as chief strategist Steve Bannon, chatted with the president throughout the day.

Whether the new system will actually work beyond a week or two is a subject of discussion - and wagering. Ivanka Trump welcomed the new chief of staff, tweeting: "Looking forward to serving alongside John Kelly as we work for the American people."

The phrase "serving alongside" raised eyebrows among those aware of Kelly's desire to supervise presidential time.

But Kelly's larger, bordering on monumental, challenge will be handling his boss. At age 71 and possessing self-regard of continental expanse, Trump might not be inclined to submit to measurable behaviour modification, even coming from a former general.

Take, for instance, Twitter. With shrewd reasoning, Trump considers his tweets a strong, direct connection to political supporters, and he has 35 million followers alone on this medium. Many of his messages offer information or applause, but others attack individuals or institutions.

Will Kelly try to restrain Trump's impulsive thumbs before they toss a firecracker at a senator or a newspaper? Perhaps the best indication came a day after Kelly moved over to run the West Wing from his previous post as secretary of Homeland Security, when his boss tweeted: "Only the Fake News Media and Trump enemies want me to stop using Social Media (110 million people). Only way for me to get the truth out!"

What about the president's off-the-cuff remarks when speaking in front of large groups? Just before the new chief of staff's arrival, Trump's loose lips landed him in trouble with the Boy Scouts of America (for what the organisation called his "political rhetoric") and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (for the presidential advice not to "be too nice" to crime suspects). Ad lib playing to a crowd comes with risks.

Centre of attention

It's important to remember that Trump amassed the bulk of his real estate and business fortune by operating mostly on his own. Running a family company, he never had to deal with a board of directors or other entities of oversight.

In his television career, he was a celebrity playing himself on the reality show The Apprentice for 14 seasons. Confrontational and improvised statements that might entertain come naturally to a person accustomed to being the centre of attention.

Trump's background is far removed from the hurly-burly and sharp elbows of Washington, perhaps the prime reason he's had trouble dealing with Congress, making executive-branch appointments and managing the White House itself.

And the mounting difficulties are beginning to affect American public opinion. Since last year's campaign, polling numbers by the firm Rasmussen Reports have figured prominently in Trump's boasting about his support. On June 16, he trumpeted the 50pc approval measured that day as "Great news!" in one tweet.

As it turns out, that proved to be the last time when 50pc offered its approval. On Wednesday, Rasmussen found that 38pc approved and 62pc disapproved in the organisation's daily tracking. A day later, a Quinnipiac University poll revealed just 33pc of American voters were happy with the job he is doing.

This week was the first time since Trump took office that his approval dipped below 40pc in this poll and also that his disapproval reached over 60pc. A total of 50pc "strongly disapprove" - a bold, flashing warning light for the future, and evidence the White House finds itself at a crossroads.

The public's growing discontent comes at the same time members of the Republican Party are asking: Where do we stand with Donald Trump as president?

After the 2016 election, Republicans bragged that majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, together with a GOP-controlled White House, would lead to initiative after initiative being approved with the party's stamp on all the legislation.

The recent defeat in the Senate of the healthcare proposal, crafted exclusively by Republicans, turned seven years of vilifying the Affordable Care Act (designed by President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats in 2009 and 2010) into hollow words that didn't repeal or reform Obamacare. Three GOP senators, including John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, joined Democratic senators to kill the measure.

Scaramucci's involvement in the resignations, forced or otherwise, of Priebus and Spicer removed from the White House two figures who'd worked closely together at the Republican National Committee. Priebus, in fact, served as chair of the RNC for six years and enjoyed establishment party connections across the country. Today, the strongest tie to the GOP in the West Wing comes from Vice President Mike Pence, a former member of the House and governor. Almost everyone else in a significant, executive-branch post has a business or military background rather than prior political involvement.

The 2018 midterm elections, with every House seat and a third of the Senate in play, could be challenging for Republicans unless there's more co-ordination - and less friction - between Congress and the Trump administration. (Historically, the party controlling the White House loses seats in the midterms, as happened to Democrats in both 2010 and 2014 with Obama as president.)

Trump's recent castigation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election provoked anger on Capitol Hill, where Sessions served as a senator for a decade. Former colleagues pledged to continue supporting the head of the Justice Department.

The wild card for 2018 and the future of the Trump presidency will be the outcome of the multiphase inquiry looking into whether there was a Russian connection to last year's election. Several Congressional committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller with his staff are currently trying to get to the bottom of what happened.

High-decibel protestations coming from Trump and the White House - one presidential tweet announced: "This is the single greatest witch-hunt of a politician in American history!" - puzzle observers and prompt questions. Why throw up a smokescreen of spite when there's already so much smoke surrounding this story? What could be the reasons for not wanting to find out if foreign intervention took place?

An outsider's outsider

Interestingly, despite all of the attention to the investigation (or "witch-hunt") in Washington, the American public, especially between the coasts, is more focused on the economy, healthcare and national security.

In mid-July, a CNN poll asked: "How concerned are you about reports that people associated with Donald Trump's campaign had contact with suspected Russian operatives during last year's campaign?"

A total of 49pc said "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned," while the same percentage responded "not too concerned" or "not at all concerned." The highest number, 33pc, selected the category "not at all". Several times since his inauguration, Trump has admitted that certain issues (such as healthcare and North Korea) are more complicated than he imagined they'd be, and he observed in one recent interview: "This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier."

Trump campaigned for the White House as an outsider's outsider - a candidate without a day's service in either government or the military. His victory was, in large part, a vote of no confidence in politics as usual in America and the Washington establishment, both personified by Hillary Clinton.

The extent to which Kelly as the new chief of staff can help an unprecedented and unpredictable presidency remains an open question, and chatter persists that Mueller might get fired and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might leave due to unhappiness. What's inevitable, however, is that before too long a crisis of some kind, either foreign or domestic, will confront this White House.

By that time, will Trump and his West Wing have reduced the current drama playing out at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with its constantly changing cast of characters? More importantly, will those in power be prepared to take charge in a commanding way that encourages followers and their support?

Any apprenticeship lasts just so long, leading to success on the job - or its opposite.

Robert Schmuhl is a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He's the author of Ireland's Exiled Children (Oxford University Press)

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