Just two months in, Donald Trump‘s presidency is perilously adrift.
His first major foray into legislating imploded Friday when House Republicans abandoned a White House-backed health care bill, resisting days of cajoling and arm-twisting from Trump himself. Aides who had confidently touted Trump as the deal’s “closer” were left bemoaning the limits of the presidency.
“At the end of the day, you can’t force somebody to do something,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
On its own, the health care bill’s collapse was a stunning rejection of a new president by his own party. And for Trump, the defeat comes with an especially strong sting. The president who campaigned by promising “so much winning,” has so far been beset by a steady parade of the opposite. With each setback and sidetrack, comes more concern about whether Trump, the outsider turned president, is capable of governing.
“You can’t just come in and steamroll everybody,” said Bruce Miroff, a professor of American politics and the presidency at the State University of New York at Albany. “Most people have a modest understanding of how complicated the presidency is. They think leadership is giving orders and being bold. But the federal government is much more complicated, above all because the Constitution set it up that way.”
The ambitious agenda Trump vowed to quickly muscle through has now been blocked by both Congress and the courts. Whole weeks of his presidency have been consumed by crises that are often self-inflicted, including his explosive and unverified claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped his New York skyscraper. Earlier this week, the FBI director confirmed that Trump’s campaign is being investigated for possible coordination with Russia during the election, an investigation that could hang over the White House for years.
Trump’s advisers say some of the churn is to be expected from a president with an unconventional style and little regard for Washington convention. They counter the notion of a White House in crisis by pointing to Trump’s well-received nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. They appeal for patience, noting that the administration is indeed in its early days.
But early missteps can be difficult to overcome, particularly for a president like Trump, who took office with historically low favorability ratings and has continued to lose support since his inauguration. According to Friday’s Gallup daily tracking poll, 54 percent of Americans disapprove of his performance on the job.
James Thurber, who founded the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, blamed Trump for an apparent “misunderstanding or ignorance of how the separation of powers works” that is hurting him at a time “where he should have much more success.”
Trump is hardly the first president to stumble through his early days in arguably one of the hardest jobs in the world. Bill Clinton‘s presidency got off to a chaotic start and was quickly shrouded by an ethics controversy involving the firing of employees at the White House travel office. Jimmy Carter, another Washington outsider, clashed with his own party. Richard Nixon struggled to unite a deeply divided nation.
“There have been moments like this in history in terms of where the country is, in terms of the president kind of having a chaotic couple of months,” said David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University. Still, he said Trump’s challenges are exacerbated by his “complete inexperience in the political arena, his personality and style.”
Indeed, many of Trump’s early struggles have been clearly avoidable. His courting of chaos undercuts his campaign promises to bring business efficiency to Washington. Infighting and gamesmanship among top White House aides, sometimes egged on by the president himself, consume a striking amount of attention in the West Wing. His wiretapping allegations against Obama put his advisers in the untenable position of trying to justify an allegation for which there is no evidence.
His first, hastily written ban on travel to the U.S. from several countries was blocked by the courts, as was a rewrite, and judges cited his own campaign rhetoric in their rulings.
The president’s advisers had hoped the health care measure would give the White House a much-needed burst of momentum and prove to wary Republicans that it was worth sticking with Trump in order to accomplish something the party had sought for seven years.
Hardly a policy wonk, Trump embraced the plan put forth by House Speaker Paul Ryan and promised Republican leaders he would invest his own political capital into rounding up votes. He did, spending hours working the phones with lawmakers, often early in the morning and late at night. His advisers held bowling and pizza nights for GOP lawmakers at the White House.
But Ryan’s decision to pull the bill Friday underscored Trump’s limitations. His powers of persuasion couldn’t overcome the ideological concerns of conservatives who are more popular in their home districts than Trump or the political fears of moderates worried about attaching themselves to an unpopular president.
Trump, who has privately lashed out at his staff and publicly berated the media during other rough patches in his young presidency, was surprisingly sanguine in defeat.
“We learned a lot about the vote-getting processes,” Trump said. “For me, it’s been a very interesting experience.”