President Trump has returned to full campaign mode. It’s not a pretty sight.
There was a point early in his presidency when Trump professed not to care about the electoral fate of congressional Republicans, whom he sometimes excoriated.
But Republican leaders have impressed upon him the personal stake he has in preventing Democrats like Reps. Maxine Waters, Adam Schiff and other administration nemeses from becoming committee chairs with the power to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and, ultimately, threaten impeachment.
In recent weeks, Trump has stepped up his involvement in the fall campaign — endorsing candidates, holding more rallies and calling on his supporters to turn out in November. As he does so, the rhetorical heat has gone up. The past week offers a hint of what the fall will bring.
THE VERY STABLE GENUS
Trump is a minority president — that’s key to understanding this White House. Most people who voted in 2016 chose someone else, and in the 18 months since he took office, the share of Americans who approve of Trump’s work has remained fixed at about four in 10.
In the taxonomy of American politics, the genus of Trump supporters shows amazing stability. So, too, does the genus of Trump opponents.
Indeed, in the roughly seven decades since polling became established, no president’s approval rating has ever stayed as steady — or as steadily low — as Trump’s. Chart his approval rating in a graph, and the line is almost flat. Significantly, the roughly 40% who approve of him are slightly outnumbered by those who not only disapprove, but say they disapprove strongly.
For a president in that situation, with minority support and seemingly no ability to win converts, the only path to victory lies in maximizing turnout among his core supporters. That requires stoking their — and his — grievances. Keep that in mind, and most of what Trump does makes sense, however much it may flout presidential norms.
ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
A perfect example came Thursday, when Ivanka Trump, always mindful of her own image, said in an interview that she did not believe that the news media were the “enemy of the people,” as her father has so often said.
When CNN’s Jim Acosta asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders if she would say likewise, the result was sadly predictable, as Eliza Fawcett reported. Sanders, always mindful of the primary audience for her briefings — the watcher in the Oval Office — had come with a written list of complaints against the press, which she spooled off.
For Trump, of course, bashing the press is a sport akin to professional wrestling. Off camera, he often likes to talk with reporters. When the lights go on, the press becomes a convenient foil.
The concern among reporters and editors is that not all of Trump’s supporters quite get the joke. Two weeks ago, Trump met with New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who urged him to tone down the rhetoric before someone gets hurt, as Laura King wrote. Characteristically, Trump brushed off the appeal. To this White House, toning down is not an option.
MORE FUEL, LESS ECONOMY
Trump lacks his own ideology, but in the interest of political success, he’s been happy to borrow one. His strongest supporters come from the right wing of the Republican Party, and he’s been more than willing to enact their agenda.
Opposition to government regulation forms a big part of conservative ideology. Skepticism about global warming has taken hold on the right. Trump’s own statements on the subject have ranged across the map, but he’s consistently allowed his appointees to dismantle government efforts to combat climate change.
The latest act came Thursday, as the administration unveiled its long-anticipated move to roll back the Obama administration’s plan for steady increases in the fuel economy of American cars and trucks. That regulation forms the federal government’s most important measure to reduce emissions that cause the climate to warm.
As Evan Halper, Tony Barboza and I wrote, the auto industry conspicuously did not endorse the administration’s plan. Car-company executives had asked Trump early on to ease the Obama-era targets, which stand to cost the companies billions of dollars to meet. But they didn’t sign up for an all-out war between the federal government and California, backed by the other 13 states that have adopted California’s strict emissions standards.
Within the administration, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who took over last month from Scott Pruitt, had warned that the evidence supporting the administration’s plan might not hold up in court. Wheeler’s deputy, Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum, took pains as he unveiled the proposal to portray it as just an initial step toward a final regulation.
So far, however, the White House has backed the more ideological opponents of climate-oriented regulations. And California officials, who face their own political pressures to oppose Trump, showed no sign of backing down.
The automakers, who fear being caught in crossfire, appealed to both sides for a negotiated settlement. Right now, the odds on that seem poor.
By contrast, the chance of a government shutdown next month has gone up.
As Eli Stokols wrote, Trump at a news conference on Monday repeated his willingness to force a shutdown as a tool to get money for his border wall.
Money to fund government agencies runs out as of Oct. 1. The Senate has passed a majority of the annual appropriations bills needed to keep the lights on, but House Republicans have insisted on provisions that Senate Democrats won’t accept, so none of the measures has yet become law.
One provision the Democrats won’t accept is to hand over a big pot of money to Trump to build the wall, which, of course, he used to say Mexico would pay for.
Last week, Republican congressional leaders, who desperately do not want a shutdown a month before the midterm election, met with Trump and thought they won his agreement for a drama-free path forward. Almost as soon as they left, Trump started to switch signals.
“I don’t care what the political ramifications are, our immigration laws and border security have been a complete and total disaster for decades, and there is no way that the Democrats will allow it to be fixed without a Government Shutdown,” he tweeted Tuesday.
Trump may not follow through — as Stokols noted, he left himself plenty of wiggle room — but Trump’s statements have both sides guessing. He likes that.
MANAFORT ON TRIAL
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election has secured several guilty pleas. Now it has its first trial, as the prosecution of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, got underway in Virginia.
As Fawcett and Chris Megerian wrote, Judge T.S. Ellis III is keeping both sides tightly focused on the specific charges, which accuse Manafort of financial fraud, not election chicanery.
The prosecution’s theory of the case is simple: Manafort spent lavishly, supporting himself with some $60 million in payments from Ukraine’s pro-Russia president. When that leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted, they say, Manafort turned to bank fraud to support his lifestyle.
The defense made clear that its case will hinge on blaming everything on Manafort’s former deputy, Rick Gates, who worked with him in Ukraine and on the Trump campaign.
While the case does not bear on the campaign, Trump, has taken great interest in it.
“Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and “Public Enemy Number One,” or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement - although convicted of nothing? Where is the Russian Collusion?” he demanded in a tweet as the trial got underway.
On Wednesday, Trump amped up the rhetoric even more, demanding in a tweet that Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions “stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.”
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and White House officials, insisted that the president was not giving an order, merely “expressing his opinion on his favored medium for asserting his 1st Amendment right of free speech,” as Giuliani put it in an interview.
Giuliani also made news earlier in the week with a comment in a CNN interview.
As Mueller has examined possible collusion by Trump associates with Russian agents and potential obstruction of justice by Trump, a focus has been a meeting that Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and other top campaign officials had with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016.
As David Willman wrote, Giuliani this week disclosed that Trump Jr. and the others also met two days earlier. That June 7 meeting may have been, in part, a session to discuss strategy for the meeting with the Russians. If so, the timing could strengthen the case that Trump knew about the June 9 meeting in advance, which he repeatedly has denied.
After weeks of stalling, administration officials appeared before a congressional committee this week to answer questions about the separation of immigrant families at the border.
The session left many questions unanswered, but clearly displayed the administration’s internal divisions on the issue, as Jazmine Ulloa wrote.
Representing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Matthew Albence unapologetically defended the policy.
Children taken from their parents “have access to 24/7 food and water,” he said. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured. There’s basketball courts, there’s exercise classes, there’s soccer fields we put in there.”
In all, he said, the detention facilities resemble “summer camp.”
Jonathan White, representing the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency in the Health and Human Services Department that actually runs those facilities, offered a darker view.
He and his colleagues had warned against separating families, White said. “Separation of children from their parents entails significant risk of harm to children” and can lead to “traumatic psychological injury,” he said.
The press, the special counsel and congressional Democrats weren’t Trump’s only targets this week. He also took off after one of the few competing power centers in the GOP, the network of organizations funded by Charles and David Koch.
As Noah Bierman and Stokols wrote, Trump’s jabs — calling the Kochs a “total joke in real Republican circles” — continued a feud that began during the 2016 campaign.
In part, the fight reflects ideology — Trump’s support for tariffs and opposition to immigration conflicts with the Kochs’ strongly held libertarian views. This week, for example, the administration threatened to double tariffs on Chinese imports, although it stopped short of actually doing it, as Jim Puzzanghera wrote.
But also at stake is who’s the boss. Trump can’t abide rivals, and Charles Koch — brother David is ill and has retired — is one of the few on the right whom he hasn’t yet defeated or humiliated.
Another move that Trump has made to keep his supporters behind him is to pursue their favored causes.
The cause of the moment for many evangelical Christian leaders involves a U.S. pastor who has been jailed for 21 months in Turkey.
This week, the administration imposed sanctions on Turkish officials to pressure them to free the pastor, Andrew Brunson. As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also pressed the case when he met Turkey’s foreign minister in Singapore at the annual summit of southeast Asian nations.
Another issue at the ASEAN summit will be North Korea. This week, the Pentagon began trying to identify the human remains that North Korea returned late last month. Fully sorting through the 55 boxes and identifying the remains could take years, David Cloud wrote. Thousands more bodies of missing soldiers are believed to still be in North Korea.
As Sarah Wire wrote, the National Archives warned Thursday that even the GOP’s request for Brett Kavanaugh‘s records won’t be ready until October.
That means the Senate will either have to wait much longer than GOP leaders want or proceed to a confirmation vote without fully examining even the part of Kavanaugh’s record that Republicans have deemed relevant.
So far, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley seem determined to push ahead with a quick vote. But the lack of a full record could give Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, the two swing votes on the nomination, an easy excuse to slow the process if they feel political pressure.
THE KAMALA CAMPAIGN
Sen. Kamala Harris has quickly moved into the top tier of potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. As Wire wrote, Harris has raised lots of money, and raised her profile, too.
The challenge for the first-term senator: Defining herself before her opponents do.
That wraps up this week. Until the next installment, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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