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'Chaos president': Shutdown and indictments test limits of Trump's appeal as a disruptor

'Chaos president': Shutdown and indictments test limits of Trump's appeal as a disruptor
President Trump walks through the colonnade of the White House toward the Rose Garden to announce a deal to temporarily reopen the government. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

Hours after the indictment and arrest Friday morning of President Trump’s longtime advisor Roger Stone on seven charges of lying and obstructing justice, another dramatic development demanded the nation shift its weary eyes.

At some of the nation’s busiest airports, planes were halted because so many air traffic controllers, unpaid through a 35-day government shutdown, called in sick. The split-screen images captured a sense of the chaos that has surrounded President Trump for much of his two years in the Oval Office.

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For most of that time, the country has adjusted to a reality-television-styled presidency that has delivered its share of shocks to the system. Trump has not always faced the kind of severe consequences that might have blown back at his predecessors. Friday, however, the president’s ability to avoid a steep price for his governing style seemed to change.

Under mounting pressure and amid declining poll numbers, Trump caved in on his demands for a border wall. By midafternoon, he announced a short-term agreement to reopen government agencies.

He warned the reprieve could be only a temporary return to normalcy, threatening to issue a possible emergency declaration should a long-term spending bill not include a level of border security money he deems satisfactory.

“If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on Feb. 15, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and Constitution of the United States to address this emergency,” Trump said during an appearance in the Rose Garden.

Democratic leaders, however, seemed unconcerned about that possibility, knowing that the public had largely blamed Trump for the shutdown and that the president’s fellow Republicans have shown no willingness to go through another round.

From farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs as a result of the president’s trade war to retirees worried about their investments as the stock markets swing, many Americans, including some of those who voted for Trump in 2016, had been affected by his policies well before the shutdown occurred. But the pain the shutdown inflicted on some 800,000 federal workers, many of whom were forced to work without pay, appeared to crystallize the uneasiness many voters have felt about Trump’s leadership.

“We're in a period where how he acts and what he says is being viewed much more critically in light of the shutdown and the changing economy,” said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster. “Instead of being the hero for ending the shutdown, he's seen as the villain for starting it.”

Many voters who tipped the 2016 election to Trump said they were fed up with the Washington establishment and liked the notion of a president as a disruptive force. But disruption may have gone too far for some.

The president’s popularity has slid in the last month. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday showed a 19-point deficit in his overall standing, with 37% of the country approving of Trump’s job performance and 58% disapproving. That’s down from a 13-point deficit, 40%-53%, in November. In the current poll, independent voters polled blamed Trump for the shutdown by roughly 2 to 1.

“It's gone from philosophical to personal,” Hart said. “That means the things that people might have agreed with in the past are coming into direct conflict with how they have to live their personal life."

The frustration runs deep even inside Trump’s own administration and among some allies advocating for stricter immigration policies.

“Making some people stay home when they don’t want to and making others show up without pay — it’s mind-boggling, it’s short-sighted, and it’s unfair,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a video message to all bureau employees. “It takes a lot to get me angry, but I’m about as angry as I’ve been in a long, long time.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who was among the hard-line immigration activists who met with Trump at the White House on Wednesday, described the five-week shutdown as “a circus” and expressed frustration over the president’s positioning.

“I understand the reasons for it: The president has talked about the wall, he feels like he has to show some progress, I get that,” Krikorian said. “But this level of political brinkmanship might have been better directed at a policy that would have a bigger effect on illegal immigration, like getting e-verify mandated for all new hires, something that would actually take away the incentive.”

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Trump’s capitulation to Democrats on the shutdown, coming just two days after his retreat following a failed effort to push House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into allowing him to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday, threatens to worsen his position, at least temporarily. It could weaken his standing with some of his supporters who have long accepted the president’s notion of himself as a “winner” and appreciated his willingness to fight, especially on the issue of illegal immigration.

“Pelosi is slapping him around so far,” said one Trump campaign advisor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If this keeps up, forget about 2020.”

Ann Coulter, the conservative provocateur who, along with Rush Limbaugh, seemingly goaded Trump last month into triggering the shutdown, savaged him in a tweet shortly after his announcement about reopening the federal government.

“Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States,” she tweeted.

But Raj Shah, who recently left his position as a White House deputy press secretary, counseled Trump supporters to be patient.

“This was a short-term move,” he said of Friday’s reversal. “Now the White House and Republicans are in a much better place to demand concessions on border security and wall funding.”

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The frenetic nature of Trump’s presidency is hardly a surprise. During his campaign, Trump thrived on the nonstop flow of news, good or bad, and the sense that he would always remain the center of attention, whether facing off against a Gold Star family or the pope. One of his frustrated Republican primary rivals, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, memorably warned that he was a “chaos candidate” who would become “a chaos president.”

Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, said Trump used disorder to keep adversaries off-guard in business dealings, thriving amid lawsuits or other conflicts that would make others uncomfortable.

“That’s his comfort zone — that having what to other people looks and feels like chaos, imbalance, confusion, disarray — is exactly what he’s always aiming at,” she said.

On Friday, it was sometimes hard to tell which of several publicity fires Trump was responding to in public statements. In one of his tweets, he attempted to tackle three at once: the independent counsel investigation, the fight over his border wall, and his continuing claims of a media persecution conspiracy.

“Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country! NO COLLUSION! Border Coyotes, Drug Dealers and Human Traffickers are treated better. Who alerted CNN to be there?” Trump said.

The last question alluded to a theory circulating among Trump supporters that CNN had been tipped off to the Stone arrest because it had cameras trained on his South Florida home early Friday morning. CNN reporters said on Twitter that there was no tipoff; they simply noticed unusual grand jury activity and relied on their experience and reporting.

By Friday afternoon, Trump walked into the chilly Rose Garden, delivering a hastily arranged statement to reporters, staffers and Cabinet members, along with a group of mayors who happened to have stopped by the White House for a meeting. Minutes before Trump spoke, White House officials said they were uncertain what he would say.

He read partly from a teleprompter, something he hates doing, veering away from his prepared remarks frequently.

When he finished, Trump’s aides tried their best to portray the deal as a victory, despite getting no promise of money for a border wall.

Was Trump happy with the new deal? Advisors couldn’t — or wouldn’t — say.

Said one senior official: “We’re happy with right now, but we still have negotiations to go.”

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