The Memo: Trump scrambles for wins


President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE is scrambling for a win as he heads into the fall buffeted by hostile winds.

Trump badly needs a victory on tax reform after a third attempt by Congressional Republicans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, failed.


The president suffered an additional political embarrassment on Tuesday when the candidate he endorsed, incumbent Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeGOP leaders dead set against Roy Moore in Alabama Domestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook Overnight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force MORE (R), lost a primary runoff in Alabama.

More broadly, special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is a dark cloud on Trump’s political horizon.

And those Republicans who have long argued that he is unprepared for the job believe that their fears have been borne out, as months have passed by with little in the way of legislative accomplishments.

“He came into office, really, as a Republican in name only. He has no consistent ideology, no real policy proposals — other than building a wall, which is obviously not going to happen,” said Dan Judy, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cuban negotiator says Trump's efforts to destabilize Cuba's government will fail Freedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers MORE’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.

“As hard as Republicans in Congress tried, health care was not particularly popular and there was no kind of presidential leadership,” Judy added. “If Trump can’t get off Twitter and stop acting like a little boy, the same fate might befall tax reform.”

People have underestimated Trump’s political abilities many times before, however.

His approval ratings have ticked up somewhat since reaching a nadir last month.

His willingness to strike deals has also kept some critics wrong-footed.

His newly friendly relationship with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he has called Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage Former FBI official praises Barr for 'professional' press conference MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has delivered an agreement on the debt ceiling and a vaguer concord on immigration.

Trump is also emerging from a period when the news agenda was dominated in part by hurricane season.

His administration’s response to destruction in Texas, Louisiana and Florida won praise even from some people normally critical of him. But the deepening crisis in Puerto Rico could overshadow those efforts.

Meanwhile, on the world stage, tensions with North Korea have burst into the open with unpredictable results.

Put it all together, and it is clear why so much is resting on the push for tax reform.

On Wednesday, Trump appeared in Indiana, seeking to make his case for a plan that includes a reduction in the corporate tax rate, a simplification of the income tax code, a reduction in the top rate of income tax and an abolition of the estate tax.

If that plan were enacted, he insisted, that would spark big economic gains. Trump noted that some of the changes would not be good for him as a billionaire but that he would reap political benefits if “everything takes off like a rocket ship.”

Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist who served in President George W. Bush’s White House, said that he believes success on tax reform is “critical” for Trump.

He added, “I think it is an opportunity to get some bipartisan support. … There could be points put on the board by Democrats if they come over.” 

Blakeman suggested that moderate Democrats running for reelection in states that Trump won last November would be the most amenable to appeals for bipartisanship. He cited Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOn The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed Pro-life Christians are demanding pollution protections MORE (D-W.Va.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampPro-trade groups enlist another ex-Dem lawmaker to push for Trump's NAFTA replacement Pro-trade group targets 4 lawmakers in push for new NAFTA Biden office highlights support from women after second accuser comes forward MORE (D-N.D.) as examples.

But bipartisanship is far from guaranteed. Progressives have weighed in against Trump’s plan, calling it a giveaway to the rich. Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris Wage growth shaping up as key 2020 factor for Trump Booker to supporter who wanted him to punch Trump: 'Black guys like us, we don't get away with that' MORE (I-Vt.) described it in a statement as “morally repugnant.” Numerous outside liberal groups have cast it in similar terms.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said that, as a general rule for Democrats, “the best route is not opposition, the best route is compromise — otherwise they can be blamed for what does not get accomplished.”

But Sheinkopf cautioned that theory doesn’t hold if Trump proposes things that are anathema to the liberal base.

“The problem here is that the issues they are being dealt are ones where they can only provide an oppositional response,” he said of Democrats. “For them to say yes to tax reforms that benefit only the wealthy would be terrible.”

The clock is ticking for Trump.

Theoretically, a win on tax reform could open the door for further progress on issues like infrastructure spending.

But there are only about 40 days left this year on the legislative calendar. Once that’s over, many lawmakers’ attention will turn to election season and the 2018 midterms.

“We are getting so close now to the 2018 campaign cycle that the window to get anything big done is closing very rapidly,” said Judy.

The question is how much Trump can squeeze through in the time that remains.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.