Democrats return to a battered Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders 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. 


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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 BidenOvernight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims The Memo: Scale of economic crisis sends shudders through nation The Hill's Campaign Report: Coronavirus forces Democrats to postpone convention MORE but also Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMaryland Legislative Black Caucus pushes for state to release racial breakdown of coronavirus impact Hillicon Valley: T-Mobile, Sprint complete merger | Warren pushes food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees | Lawsuit accuses Zoom of improperly sharing user data Warren calls on food delivery apps to classify workers as full employees MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersHuffPost political reporter on why Bernie fell way behind Biden Schumer: Administration 'must move heaven and earth' to implement new unemployment benefits Biden associates reach out to Holder about VP search 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 GrishamOAN says it will attend briefing as White House guest after violating social distancing rules UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tests positive for coronavirus White House press secretary to return to work after negative virus test 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 ManafortJuan Williams: Mueller, one year on Juan Williams: Will the GOP ever curb Trump? Nadler seeks interviews with DOJ prosecutors that left Stone case MORE was found guilty of tax and bank fraud and his longtime personal attorney Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenJudge rejects Michael Cohen's plea for early prison release amid coronavirus Michael Cohen cites 'absence of presidential leadership' over coronavirus in effort to move to home confinement Free Roger Stone 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 PelosiNJ governor calls for assessment of coronavirus response after crisis abates Overnight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims Hillicon Valley: Zoom draws new scrutiny amid virus fallout | Dems step up push for mail-in voting | Google to lift ban on political ads referencing coronavirus 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.