Democrats return to a battered Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE is emerging from a turbulent August with a new problem: Capitol Hill Democrats are about to be back in town.

The Democrats have vowed to unleash new fronts in their investigations of Trump and heap pressure on the White House and Republicans to tackle gun legislation this fall in response to a new series of mass shootings. 

On Friday, two House committees sent inquiries to the White House about administration officials’ use of taxpayer money at Trump properties, after Vice President Pence was forced to defend a stay at a Trump property in Ireland during an official trip there. 

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Congress is returning to do battle with a weakened Trump, who entered the August recess from a point of strength but has been battered by weeks of bruising headlines.

At the end of July, Trump was presiding over a strong economy and a political victory in the form of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE’s testimony to Congress, which largely failed to make a dent with public opinion.

But since then, new questions about whether the economy is headed toward a recession have picked up, posing a threat to what has been seen as Trump’s biggest strength going into his reelection bid.

Polls show Trump behind not only former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment Biden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running MORE but also Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running Press: Another billionaire need not apply Saagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTech firms face skepticism over California housing response Press: Another billionaire need not apply Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick mulling 2020 run: report MORE (I-Vt.) in hypothetical match-ups, underscoring questions about whether he can win another four-year term.

Over the August recess, the president accused Jews who vote Democrat of being “disloyal,” scrapped a trip to Denmark after its leaders ridiculed a possible Greenland purchase, displayed a map apparently altered to extend the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian to include Alabama and tweeted incessantly to defend a dubious claim that Alabama faced a significant threat from the storm.   

There was even a story published that the president asked if hurricanes could be hit with nuclear bombs to prevent them from arriving in the United States — a story that Trump said was false.

Trump will now face pressure to stake out his position on gun reform measures this week, and he also must sign legislation to keep the government funded before the end of the month.

Another goal is to reach a deal on a renegotiated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico that faces opposition from Congress.

The White House has pushed back hard at any narrative that the president had a difficult August.

On Thursday, two White House aides penned an op-ed criticizing a Washington Post report asserting Trump’s summer was dominated by “self-inflicted controversies and squandered opportunities,” arguing the outlet chose not highlight Trump’s accomplishments such as reaching a tentative trade deal with Japan and crossing into the Demilitarized Zone. 

“After decades of neglect by Washington, our economy, immigration system, trade deals, employment numbers, and prospects of peacefully ending years of war abroad are better than they have ever been,” wrote Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamWhite House struggles to get in sync on impeachment White House press secretary says Trump will decide when she holds first press briefing Trump administration calls for early elections in Iraq to stop violence MORE and Hogan Gidley, the White House press secretary and deputy press secretary. 

Former White House officials downplayed any problems moving forward for Trump.

“I don’t think it makes any difference. The members go on recess, and when they do that, the media can focus on [Trump] and him alone,” said Jonathan Slemrod, a former legislative affairs aide in the Trump administration.

The tumultuous August recess was not a new phenomenon for Trump.

In 2017, he sparked bipartisan backlash over his defense of attendees at a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Trump last year was dealt a blow when his former campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortPaul Manafort's former son-in-law sentenced to 9 years in prison for scamming Dustin Hoffman, others NSC official testified there was 'no doubt' Trump pushed quid pro quo Prosecutor says Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump as trial opens MORE was found guilty of tax and bank fraud and his longtime personal attorney Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenBroadcast, cable news networks to preempt regular programming for Trump impeachment coverage DOJ releases hundreds of pages of memos from Mueller probe Scaramucci visits Cohen in prison MORE admitted to crimes on the same day. 

Slemrod said the problem for Trump is that when the Congress is gone, “he’s the only game in town.”

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said that the controversies individually aren’t major but that they as a whole detract from the White House’s messaging on low jobless claims and economic growth. Trump, he argued, needs to be wary of distracting from his accomplishments ahead of the 2020 election with “tweets from left field.” 

“This is a lesson for the White House,” O’Connell said. “Part of that can be chucked up to the doldrums of summer, but they need to be really focused.” 

House Democrats are expected to return to Washington to probe Trump’s involvement in hush money payments arranged by Cohen before the 2016 election as well as reports that Trump offered pardons to officials to carry out orders at the U.S. southern border. 

In most cases, the White House has declined to cooperate with the onslaught of investigations from the House, refusing to turn over documents and blocking or limiting testimony from witnesses. 

The White House has often cited issues of executive privilege or argued that current and former West Wing officials are immune from testimony about their time working for the president. Democrats have looked to the courts to resolve some of the pursuits, but that promises further delay. 

Trump’s attention moving into the fall is likely to be increasingly focused on 2020 and his reelection bid.

Two more Democratic debates in the coming weeks will provide Trump fodder to attack his prospective opponents, and the president is likely to hold additional campaign rallies himself in swing states. 

Trump will be in Fayetteville, N.C., on Monday night for a rally ahead of a special House election in that district. He has already held recent events in Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire, and key battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota could be forthcoming.

In the meantime, time is winding down for Trump to reach a deal with Congressional Democrats on some of his legislative priorities.

Allies of the administration and former officials point to the push for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement as the main legislative focus for the remainder of the year, but there is uncertainty around whether Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats sharpen their message on impeachment Congress hunts for path out of spending stalemate Siren song of impeachment lures Democrats toward election doom MORE (D-Calif.) will bring it up for a vote. 

“The White House is going to go all in on this,” said O’Connell. “By not passing this, you’re rooting for the recession. You’re rooting to hurt the American worker.” 

Those close to the administration are optimistic the government will pass spending bills to avoid a shutdown but skeptical Trump will back significant gun control laws and view executive orders as a more likely way he’ll advance his agenda.

One former White House official cited an axiom that little tends to get accomplished in the last two years of a president’s term, particularly with a divided Congress, as the focus shifts to the next election.

“The principal reason why we might not see a lot of legislation passed is because politically it doesn’t behoove Democrats,” the official said.