GOP Allies Still Trying to Figure out How to Read Trump
As the first two years of President Donald Trump's administration close, Republican allies still haven't figured out how best to influence a leader who takes cues from the forces that swept him to office and seems to fear losing them above all else.
Republicans on Capitol Hill and even the president's closest advisers have been whipsawed over a series of recent actions that show how intently Trump relies on what is sometimes called his gut — an adherence to campaign promises he made that are being reinforced by a constellation of election gurus, Fox News personalities and others who hold sway like few others.
"I know he can be a handful, but he is the president," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told The Associated Press.
On the domestic front, no sooner had Trump signaled he might be backing off his demand for $5 billion to build a border wall with Mexico — easing away from a partial government shutdown — than he took a U-turn after being scolded by conservative allies and pundits, who accused him of wavering on a campaign promise. Now, three days into the shutdown, his budget chief says it could drag into the New Year.
On issues abroad, Trump acted against the advice of his national security advisers and issued a surprise decision to pull troops from Syria. That prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to step down and Trump's special envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State militants, Brett McGurk, to resign. A drawdown of troops in Afghanistan also appeared to be in the works.
As the stock market tumbled on Christmas Eve, Trump lashed out at the Federal Reserve sowing more uncertainty over his public criticism of chairman Jerome Powell.
Now, as Republicans prepare to relinquish their hold on government, with Democrats taking control of the House in January, the opportunities — and limits — of the GOP alliance with the Trump White House may be running their course.
"I am all alone [poor me] in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal,'' the president tweeted.
Over and again, Trump has shown himself to be more of a tactical, than strategic, thinker, acting to avoid short-term pain rather than seeking long-term gain.
When Congress was about to keep the government running without a fight over border wall money, Trump felt the outcry from his base and intervened.
Trump told House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders at the White House he wouldn't sign a Senate-passed compromise bill, which would have kept border security money at $1.3 billion, not the $5 billion he wanted for the wall with Mexico.
The House and Senate gaveled in for a brief Christmas Eve session Monday only to close up quickly for the holidays.
"Trump is plunging the country into chaos," the Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement. "Instead of bringing certainty into people's lives, he's continuing the Trump Shutdown just to please right-wing radio and TV hosts."
Trump's sudden moves on Syria left top Republicans on Capitol Hill criticizing his decision to pull out all of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signed on to a letter with other GOP senators urging Trump to reconsider.
Graham used a weekend luncheon with conservative lawmakers at the White House to impress on the president the rightness of his instinct on both the border wall and the troop withdrawal in Syria, while also sharing with Trump some ideas for smoothing the policy around both issues.
"I told the president, I'm not arguing with your general philosophy," Graham said. "He's a good listener."
Graham reminded Trump that while shoring up the border wall is important, "a Southern wall isn't going to protect you against ISIS."
It's unclear if Trump was listening. The Pentagon said Monday that Mattis has already signed the order to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.
And Mattis, who was also unhappy with Trump's order to develop plans to pull out half of the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, was being pushed out two months early. Irritated by a surge of criticism over his decision, Trump said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will take over as acting secretary on Jan. 1.
Trump's allies chock up the president's year-end moves to a wager that the intense support from his base of voters will continue to propel his electoral chances in 2020 — even if polling suggests otherwise.
An analysis of VoteCast, a nationwide poll of more than 115,000 midterm voters conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, highlights the fractures.
A small, but significant slice of voters — the 18 percent who described themselves as only "somewhat" approving of the president — expressed concerns.
Compared with the 27 percent of voters who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters, the "somewhat" Trump voters are much more likely to disapprove of Trump on key issues and have reservations about his personality.
In a warning signs for Republicans, who just lost their House majority in the November election, those voters are more likely to have voted for Democrats in 2018. They are more educated, somewhat more likely to be women, and more likely to live in suburbs.
The president has been busy on the phone to allies on Capitol Hill, talking late into the night with some.
Trump seemed "exuberant" at the luncheon, said one Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who was the only member of the GOP leadership to attend.
Ryan, who is retiring, and McConnell have become almost side actors to the year-end shutdown they both tried to avoid, but now will partly own. Both offices said it was up to Trump and Democrats to cut a deal.
Shelby said that at lunch Trump did seem like he wanted to reach a deal. At the same time, it's not always clear whether any of the hours of conversation result in decisions that drift too far from Trump's own instinct to stay close to his base.
"I don't think it's imminent we're going to reach a deal," Shelby said. "I wish we could."