Trump survives brutal August

Trump survives brutal August
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President Trump has weathered a dramatic August recess and is heading into a critical September legislative stretch that’s expected to test his leadership and the ability of the GOP-controlled Congress to deliver on longstanding campaign promises. 

Trump’s polling numbers dipped in August, but appear to have stabilized. The president is in better shape now than he was only two weeks ago, when his job approval bottomed out after his response to the racially charged protests in Charlottesville provoked a furious political blowback, including from many Republicans.

Throughout August, the White House was racked by turnover and internal strife among Trump’s top aides and Cabinet. Trump also feuded bitterly with the GOP leaders he needs to pass his agenda, a drama that underscored the fact that the White House and Republicans have yet to put a major legislative victory on the board. 

But Trump will enter September – a month his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon dubbed the “meat grinder” for its gauntlet of thorny political issues – with a new team in place and a new slate of priorities, beginning with a push for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief and tax reform.

Significant challenges lay ahead, with a budget and debt ceiling fight on the docket, as well as potentially explosive action on immigration and the ongoing threat posed by North Korea.

“It’s going to be a busy September,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday. “The message the president would have for members of Congress is, ‘let’s get to work, you’ve had a nice long break and we have a lot to do.’”

Hill Republicans are looking ahead to what they hope will be a turning point for the Trump presidency and Republican Congress.

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“Everyone recognizes the August recess was not a good one for Republicans but there are signs things will be better in September,” said one GOP operative with close ties to Republican lawmakers. 

The final month of the summer was at times disastrous for the president.

After shaking up his leadership team, Trump went after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanEx-White House spokesman Raj Shah joins Fox Corporation as senior vice president Trump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Ocasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud MORE, blaming them for his stalled agenda.

But the Charlottesville drama was the low point for the president and polling indicates it damaged him politically.

Trump began August with a 39.2 percent job approval rating in the RealClearPolitics average. He finished at 38.5 percent, after bottoming out halfway through the month at 37.4 percent. 

In the Gallup daily tracker, Trump was at 36 percent approval on Aug. 1 but returned to the low of 34 by the end of the month.

Trump spent all of August below the 40 percent mark, which he last hit on July 11. His 35 percent average for the week of Aug. 21 was the lowest of his presidency.

“One could argue that he had a very difficult August, yet his public perception numbers have stabilized,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “Having done so many polls and focus groups, I think it's clear that Trump's base is about a third of the country, and they approve of everything he does. Everything.” 

Indeed, Trump’s supporters have been enthused by his response to the Hurricane Harvey and their support for him has been further hardened by the media’s coverage of the natural disaster. 

Trump made an early swing through Southeast Texas to view the devastation and will return on Saturday. The government’s early response to the crisis has looked coordinated and thorough, but Trump’s allies have been frustrated by stories about first lady Melania Trump’s shoes and what many in the media characterized as a lack of empathy from the president. 

“Harvey showed the country is ready to come together with the exception of the media, which is just creating divisiveness,” said one former Trump adviser. “While Trump and Melania were focused on the victims, the media looked petty.”

There is some optimism in Washington that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey will incentivize Congress to avoid a government shutdown or debt ceiling crisis. 

“National tragedies have a way of stripping partisanship from good public policy,” said the GOP operative, who predicted Trump and McConnell wouldn’t let the tensions that boiled over in August distract from their shared agenda.

“The tensions between the president and GOP leader were always overstated,” the source said. “McConnell is the ultimate pragmatist and won’t let this get in the way of legislative accomplishments. It’s a non-issue.” 

And some of the August drama could benefit the president in the long run.

On the memorable Friday night when Harvey bore down on Texas, the White House pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and took action to bar transgender people from the military, actions that are likely to please Trump’s base.

And the White House has already seen a decrease in drama with new chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE at the helm and Bannon and many of his allies forced out. 

“The cleansing that took place in August, I think we’ll look at it in three or six months from now and be able to say things are working much better,” said the former Trump adviser. “The culture in the White House was corrosive and toxic. Now the culture is unifying.”