It was just last week that President Donald Trump and his allies euphorically celebrated what they called Trump’s exoneration after special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. The apparent absence of proof that Trump’s 2016 campaign conspired with the Kremlin produced talk of a fresh start for Trump’s presidency ahead of the 2020 election.
But misfortune and mayhem almost immediately began piling up. Trump unleashed two new political crises — one on health care, one on the Mexican border — and then retreated on both of them. A brief lull in House Democratic oversight action ended abruptly when House investigators demanded his tax returns.
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And news reports revealed that Mueller’s soon-to-be-released findings may be far more damaging than Attorney General William Barr has publicly indicated, suggesting that the Russia scandal is hardly in the president’s rear view window.
The action reached a crescendo on Thursday when Trump backed down from days of threats to “shut down” the U.S.-Mexico border in response to what he calls an illegal immigration and drug-trafficking crisis. Facing intense opposition from congressional Republicans, business groups and his own senior aides, Trump said he would give Mexico a “one-year warning” to stop the flow of drugs into the United States.
While Trump added a new threat to slap tariffs on cars manufactured in Mexico, he was effectively backing down for the second time in a week on an issue he had elevated. Trump overruled senior members of his administration last week and took legal action to invalidate Obamacare. Days later — again under pressure from members of his own party — he deferred any new action on health care reform until after the 2020 election, leaving fellow Republicans bewildered and fearing the political fallout over an issue that has proven toxic for the GOP.
The twin retreats in particular left some Republicans privately expressing deep frustration, arguing that Trump once again squandered an otherwise triumphant moment with half-baked proclamations, and fearing that whatever momentum he seemed to gain last week had already been squandered.
“I think the administration blew it,” said one Republican donor with close ties to the White House. “The Mueller report was good news. They failed to take advantage of it and now look where we are.”
The border and healthcare snafus represent the risks of bold White House action aimed at charting a more proactive policy agenda that can carry Trump into the 2020 campaign.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has complained that the White House is too often on the defensive, taking punches instead of setting the agenda in Washington, according to a person with direct knowledge of one such conversation. Mulvaney has encouraged Trump to take aggressive moves that will appeal to his base, including the new assault on Obamacare.
Meanwhile, the White House has been responding to a seemingly nonstop parade of setbacks. On Thursday, the House approved a Senate measure cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, a plan the White House opposed. (Trump has vowed to veto the measure.)
A day before, the House released information that showed Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was denied a security clearance last year because of concerns about foreign influence, private business interests and personal conduct. The weekend arrest of a Chinese woman carrying a malware-laced device into Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, only added to the growing questions about presidential information security.
Despite backing down from his once-imminent threat to close the southern border, Trump is heading to California on Friday to inspect a recently-completed stretch of border barrier. Some of his allies believe the setting will show Trump in a position of strength and spotlight action on his core 2016 campaign promise to build a Mexican border wall.
“It’ll get the attention off the news in Washington and refocus people’s attention,” said a former campaign aide who remains in touch with the White House. “It’s partially deflection.”
Trump will travel to Calexico, Calif., to tour the border on Friday on a two-day trip that will include a discussion with law enforcement at the border, 2020 campaign fundraising and a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.
David Bossie, a Trump confidant who worked on his 2016 campaign, dismissed reports of bad news, insisting nothing has changed for Trump since Mueller’s report was concluded last month. He said mounting Democratic oversight requests are nothing new for the White House.
“They hate this president and they are trying to delegitimize him and impeach him,” he said. “Nothing’s changed.”
But the former aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely about internal West Wing dynamics, said the White House is eagerly counting down the days until Congress leaves for its two-week recess when Trump can be the only megaphone in Washington.
Until then, the president will be saddled with problem after problem, most of them emanating from Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, House Democrats demanded six years of Trump’s tax returns from the IRS and a decade of Trump’s financial records from his accounting firm. They also green-lighted a subpoena for the full Mueller report.
The actions came amid reports that Mueller’s team was frustrated that Attorney General Bill Barr didn’t accurately portray their findings in his four-page summary released last week. Outside the White House Thursday afternoon, about 300 people, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, gathered to push for the release of Mueller’s report, one of 300 such “Nobody is Above the Law” protests that took place across the nation.
Scott Jennings, who worked President George W, Bush and is close to the Trump White House, warned the White House will have an additional issue to deal with when the Mueller report is released in the coming weeks. “They need to get through that,” he said.
Trump was elated after he learned about Barr’s summary, pumping his fist with excitement when he recounted the good news to his allies, according to a person told about his reaction. But the jubilation, which included false claims that Mueller had “totally exonerated” the president of wrongdoing, was short-lived.
The president has been particularly frustrated with Democrats’ rejection of his insistence that there’s a crisis at the border. In private, he has complained that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t taking the issue seriously.
Trump has long criticized Mexico for failing to halt Central American migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from coming to the U.S. border. But he had not put a timeline on his threat to close the border until this week.
Many Trump advisers counseled the president that closing the border posed a foolhardy threat to the strong economy Trump is depending on for his re-election campaign. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump ally and chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, also warned Trump that closing the border was a bad idea, according to a source familiar with their conversation.
Trump and his aides said Thursday that Mexico had made significant efforts in recent days to prevent immigrants from crossing the border by adding more checkpoints and allowing people to remain in the country while seeking asylum.
“I don’t think we’ll have to close the border,” Trump told reporters late Thursday.
Trump, who thought his threat to close the border and vote on healthcare would appeal to his base, increasingly views nearly every decision he makes in terms of the raw politics of the upcoming election, people close to him said.
Trump regularly obsesses over his Democratic opponents in the presidential race.
In a recent conversation with a Republican lawmaker, Trump quickly veered into an unrelated discussion about the Democratic presidential field, according to a person briefed on the matter, citing poll numbers showing how various contenders stack up against him.
“Trump seems keenly, keenly well into the weeds,” the person said, adding that the president has even reviewed polling about how the Democratic candidates might fair in the crucial state of Iowa.
Eliana Johnson contributed to this story.