The Memo: Trump returns to challenges at home

The Memo: Trump returns to challenges at home
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President Trump’s international trip went better than his detractors forecast — but he has plenty of challenges on his plate as he returns to Washington this weekend.

Trump left on his nine-day international trip amid tumult over his firing of FBI Director James Comey. Although the later stages of his journey were marred by a frosty meeting with European Union and NATO leaders, there were no catastrophic missteps and his travels through the politically treacherous territory of the Middle East were generally well-received.

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But none of that alleviates the pressures that are crowding in on Trump at home: the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel to look into allegations of collusion with Russia; approval ratings that are the worst of any president so early in his tenure; and an uncertain outlook for his major legislative priorities.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Trump’s job performance currently wins approval from just 39.9 percent of voters, as against 54.2 percent who disapprove.

Members of Trump’s orbit and the broader Republican world are almost unanimous on the things he needs to do to improve his standing: Show more discipline, find some way to compartmentalize the Russian probe, and do everything he can to advance big bills on Capitol Hill.

Some are taking heart from the creation of a so-called “war room” at the White House, intended to mount the case for the defense on the Russian controversy. The war room will be helmed by Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist — and the man whom some members of Trump’s base see as a keeper of the president’s populist flame, even as his detractors portray him as a hard-right Machiavelli.

“I’m highly confident with Steve Bannon leading this war room effort. He’s a master strategist,” said Sam Nunberg, who worked as an aide to Trump during the 2016 campaign. “The idea that Steve would be in the bunker would give me confidence, just as an outside supporter.”

Trump backers also see a silver lining in Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, since it could alleviate some pressure on the White House to comment on every twist and turn in the Russian probe. Some suggest the administration has an obvious route to parry reporters’ questions, by citing Mueller’s investigation and refusing to comment further.

“Discipline is more important now than ever,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “They don’t need to be commenting on anything relating to Russia. There is just no advantage to working through a serious investigation publicly.”

But Russia is only one part of the picture. Republicans of all stripes are agreed that a lot hinges on whether the president can make progress in Congress. There, his relations with party colleagues have been strained, even as most GOP members have resisted the temptation to definitively break with the president in public.

“Privately, I think many are exasperated that there are a lot of self-inflicted controversies,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who worked on 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Madden added that members of Congress “want to see a White House more focused, concentrating on the issues and the priorities of the American people. Basically, members of Congress want something to agree on with the White House, and the domestic focus is where they agree.”

As Madden and others acknowledge, however, there is no guarantee that quick progress can be made. The push to dismantle and replace the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, faces an uncertain future in the Senate, even though it did finally pass the House at the start of this month.

The other obvious item on the Trump agenda — tax reform — is attainable but deeply complex.

Another vexing related issue for the administration is the degree to which they can depend on Capitol Hill Republicans for support — or not. While there has not so far been a mass desertion from Trump, more than a dozen GOP senators expressed concern over his firing of Comey. A couple of Republican House members even raised the possibility of impeachment, albeit obliquely.

The possibility of growing dissent, and damage to Trump’s chances of passing legislation, is acknowledged even by stalwart supporters like Nunberg.

“The number one priority for the Trump administration [is] that they need to keep in line the candidates who are up in the 2018 elections, so that candidates cannot and will not be able to create space from the administration,” he said. “The danger is that they are going to care just about re-election, and not passing any bill.”

There is one final piece of the puzzle, alluded to by almost all Republicans: whether the president himself can rein in his Twitter habits, which most have come to see as distracting and sometimes self-destructive. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (R-Ky.) has publicly implored Trump to curtail his tweeting. And there are reports the White House is at least thinking about making some changes. A Wall Street Journal story published on Friday said the administration was considering the unusual step of having White House attorneys look over Trump’s messages before they are Tweeted.

As Trump returns, it’s back to business as usual. And the stakes are very high.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE’s presidency.