The Memo: Trump in 2018: Five things to watch
True to his style, President Trump’s first year in office was tumultuous and unpredictable.
There is no clear evidence that the nation’s 45th president is going to change his ways anytime soon.
As he begins his second year in office, what are some of the big things to look out for?
Does he hit the campaign trail in advance of the midterms?
Trump defied every prediction by coming from nowhere to win the presidency on his first attempt. But his efforts to use his appeal to help other candidates in 2017 had mixed results.
This was clearest of all in Alabama, where he first campaigned for incumbent Sen. Luther Strange (R), who went down in defeat in the GOP primary. Trump then backed Republican nominee Roy Moore — reportedly against the counsel of some of his advisers — only to see Moore lose the general election to Democrat Doug Jones in a state Trump had carried by 28 points in 2016.
Trump is unpopular with the electorate at large, but very popular with Republican voters — a fact that greatly complicates the question of whether his presence at rallies and other campaign events will help or hurt Republican candidates.
Trump could help drive turnout up among the GOP base, but he could be equally energizing for the opposition.
With an overall approval rating of just 39.8 percent in the RealClearPolitics average as of Sunday, Trump could also put off voters in the center.
Does he keep faith with his legal team?
The White House sought to contain the political damage from allegations of collusion with Russia when the president enlisted a separate, personal legal team to deal with the matter.
In recent months, three lawyers — Ty Cobb, John Dowd and Jay Sekulow — have come to the fore in responding to the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Cobb, in particular, has been vocal in his insistence that Mueller’s probe is nearing its end. At one point, Cobb suggested it would all be over by Thanksgiving or, at worst, the end of the year.
Many legal experts never saw this as a realistic possibility. There was widespread speculation that Cobb’s promises were aimed at keeping the president calm and discouraging him from precipitous action such as attempting to fire Mueller.
But how long will Trump’s patience endure if the probe goes on well into 2018? And will he also keep faith with the current strategy, in which his lawyers promise to cooperate with Mueller while his political allies attack the special counsel?
Trump surprised some observers last week when he told The New York Times that he expects Mueller is “going to be fair.” But it still seems plausible that Trump will soon want a more confrontational strategy.
Does he reach out to Democrats?
One of the more idiosyncratic subplots of Trump’s first year in office was his ever-changing relationship with “Chuck and Nancy” — Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Trump stunned his Republican colleagues in September when he struck a deal with the Democrats on government funding and the debt ceiling. He followed that up in short order with a meeting where Schumer and Pelosi believed they had reached an agreement on incorporating into law the protections of former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The White House would soon insist that any immigration deal was much less definitive. And, as the year drew to a close, Trump returned to a much more combative footing regarding Schumer and Pelosi, and Democrats generally.
There are items on the GOP’s legislative agenda that have the potential to draw Democratic support. In addition to some kind of fix for DACA, infrastructure spending is the most obvious example. Some red-state Democrats are also open to loosening some of the regulations in the Dodd-Frank banking law.
But will the president make a good faith effort to keep Democrats on board? And, if he does, will they respond, given the enmity toward the president among huge swathes of their base?
Where does he go next on foreign policy?
Trump’s “America First” platform on foreign policy has delighted his supporters but outraged critics and much of the establishment.
His propensity to use the kind of language that was unheard-of from any previous president — calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man,” for example — has startled the international community.
But Trump’s actions have sometimes been several notches softer than his rhetoric.
He declined to certify that Iran was in compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, but stopped short of blowing up the agreement. He backtracked on his campaign-trail contention that NATO was “obsolete.” And his actions on trade — with China and in relation to the North American Free Trade Agreement — have not been as emphatic as some expected.
Most of these issues will remain relevant in 2018 and new international crises are sure to erupt. It remains to be seen just how far Trump is willing to go to bring his policies in line with his words.
Does he hold onto his base?
Even as Trump’s approval rating has sagged, there remained one silver lining for the White House: Poll after poll indicated that around 35 percent of the electorate is sticking with him, despite all the storms that clouded his horizon in 2017.
Trump is desperate to keep this base, which he credits with helping to deliver his election victory, especially in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
He has kept his loyalists fired up by his willingness to press any number of social and cultural hot buttons. He has hit the media constantly, attacked NFL players for kneeling to protest racial injustice and made deeply controversial remarks about racial violence in Charlottesville, Va.
Trump has often argued that he is delivering on his campaign trail slogan — Make American Great Again — pointing in particular to strong economic performance. Unemployment has continued to decline, the stock market has soared and overall economic growth has been robust.
But that does not mean that those gains necessarily go to the people who elected Trump, especially those voters lower down the socio-economic scale who have suffered from decades of wage stagnation and deindustrialization.
Maybe the Trump diehards will never lose faith in the president. But if any significant number of them decide that he is a less transformative figure than they had hoped, he could be in big trouble.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.