After a week of self-inflicted chaos, Trump could see long-term costs to his presidency
The string quartet had just finished when President Trump raised his arms in triumph.
“Am I doing okay?” Trump asked, turning to chuckling Republican leaders who had once shunned him but now surrounded him in the Rose Garden to celebrate the House’s passage of a healthcare bill. “I’m president! Hey, I’m president. Can you believe it?”
That was just over a week ago, and though the path ahead in the Senate for the bill looked difficult, administration officials and supporters could truthfully say, after several false starts, that they were moving forward on their legislative agenda.
Trump changed that in a hurry.
His decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey unfolded the way a lot of his actions have — impulsively, subject to minimal review by aides, surrounded by misleading statements.
Many Democrats suggested that the firing presaged a full-scale effort by the administration to scotch the investigation into possible ties between Trump associates and Russian agents who sought to influence the 2016 election.
But at least for now, the firing seems less part of a carefully considered plot and more the rash decision of a president who binges on cable TV and steadily grew more angry at the telegenic FBI director who was unwilling to publicly exonerate him.
Besides potential legal problems for Trump and his associates stemming from the investigation, the crisis set off by Comey’s sacking threatens long-term damage to Trump’s presidency — further undermining the White House’s credibility across the board, imperiling the president’s legislative agenda and stunting his ability to attract qualified professionals to serve in an administration already woefully behind in filling top positions.
“This was the worst-handled replacement of a public figure in my lifetime,” said Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. “There’s a way you do things and this was not it. And the fact there’s no one around Trump that had the gravitas to tell him is startling.”
After that Rose Garden celebration, Trump might have savored the mood a bit longer. He spent the weekend at his club in Bedminster, N.J. It rained. So, cooped up there with only bare-bones staff, he turned to a favorite vice: cable television. And he began stewing.
There were reports about the healthcare bill victory and of healthy jobs numbers. Yet Trump could not escape the other big topic: the Russia investigation.
His exasperation built as the week began. Back at the White House on Monday, with three journalists from Time magazine over for dinner, Trump showed them the Tivo in his private study near the Oval Office. He no longer watched sports, he told them — “I’m now consumed by news.”
Gripping a remote control, he scrolled to a recording of recent congressional testimony by Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general whom Trump had fired in late January, and James R. Clapper, who was President Obama’s director of national intelligence. “Watch them start to choke like dogs,” Trump said.
But it was Comey’s testimony from the same week that rankled him. Hours before the Time group’s arrival, Trump had summoned Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein into the Oval Office. He ordered Rosenstein, less than two weeks on the job and responsible for overseeing the FBI investigation, to write up his concerns about Comey’s leadership. When Trump received it the next day, he quickly fired the director. Only days before, Press Secretary Sean Spicer had said Comey had the president’s full confidence.
Aides, along with Vice President Mike Pence, over two days combatively insisted the Russia investigation had nothing to do with Comey’s firing. Then Trump himself contradicted them in a Thursday interview with NBC News.
“I decided to just do it,” he said. ”I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”
Trump has now all but squandered his honeymoon, the post-inaugural months when presidents traditionally enjoy maximum leverage in Congress and with the public.
“You’ll never have more political capital than you do now,” said A.B. Culvahouse Jr., former White House counsel to President Reagan and head of Trump’s vice presidential vetting effort last year. So for Trump, “the timing is just no good.”
Culvahouse recalled that the Iran-Contra scandal and its investigation “cost Ronald Reagan almost a year of his presidency.” Yet unlike Trump’s crisis, that one came at the end of Reagan’s second term, when his legacy was largely sealed.
Veterans of other administrations say Trump needs a bigger, more experienced team of advisors — and people who can stand up to him and warn against rash decisions — if he has hopes of rebounding. Yet attracting talent is likely to be more difficult after the way Comey was fired and then publicly criticized for several days by Trump and his aides.
“Now it will be even harder because some of the eligible people will say, ‘What am I getting into here?’” said Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy advisor in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. His own appointment to the No. 2 job in the State Department was vetoed by Trump because of Abrams’ criticism of him during the campaign.
Abrams said that many of the people who would fill top spots have lucrative careers and would have to sacrifice income and family time to serve in the administration. “When the administration seems to be in some disarray, the balance can shift from yes to no,” he said.
Trump’s relations with Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, have been damaged and will be difficult to remedy. He has little hope of winning the support of any Democrats, even those from conservative and swing states who are facing reelection next year.
As for Republicans, longtime party strategist Rick Tyler says Trump is threatening the political future of his allies in Congress and may find it harder to get top-level Republicans to speak on his behalf when they know the president is apt to contradict them at any moment. If his popularity in polls continues to slide, Tyler said, Trump will lose leverage to pass legislation the party has promised its voters for years.
“This is not how you win legislative victories,” Tyler said. “This is how you win ratings for reality shows.”
Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.
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