Donald Trump returns to the Oval Office on Monday in danger of becoming increasingly isolated from the Republican establishment he needs to enact his agenda and the grassroots activists inspired by just-departed chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
The president will look to turn the page after a tumultuous working vacation capped by ousting the firebrand Bannon, who many in the White House blamed for the chaos and public infighting that has beset the administration. The move followed the departure of Trump’s first chief of staff, press secretary, and communications director in quick succession.
A week of stinging denouncements from corporate executives, lawmakers and even some conservative activists highlights the challenge Trump faces in rebounding from his roundly criticized response to an Aug. 13 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended with the death of a counter-protester in a car-ramming incident.
Starting on Monday, when Trump is scheduled to address the nation at 9:00 pm New York time about Afghanistan in a prime-time address, the president’s moves will be watched for a sense of whether the presidency, seven months in, can rebound from perhaps its lowest point yet. Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, who favors adding troops to a fight that has become America’s longest-running war, hinted Sunday that Trump may decide to do just that.
A campaign rally Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona, less than 200 miles from the Mexican border, will provide a glimpse into whether Trump plans to pivot from the pugilistic approach that’s left him with a shrinking number of allies.
“As we look to the future it’s going to be very difficult for this president to lead if, in fact, that moral authority remains compromised,’’ Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face The Nation.’’
Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and regular Trump critic, wrote on Facebook Friday that “I doubt that Donald Trump will be able to calm and comfort the nation’’ after the next national tragedy.
With members of his own party openly criticizing him for his insistence that “both sides’’ were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Trump’s choice of whether to lash out or reach out from this point could be pivotal. Saturday, on Twitter, he seemed for the first time to extend an olive branch to protesters who’ve denounced him.
Back in Washington, the recent firing of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former head of the Republican National Committee, has helped widen a rift with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP lawmakers whom Trump has blamed for not achieving legislative wins on his behalf.
At the same time, Bannon’s exit risks alienating some of Trump’s grassroots supporters.
“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon told the conservative Weekly Standard on Friday after his White House departure. “We will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over.”
The struggle between White House advisers calling for Trump to embrace the role of a more traditional president, and those who have pushed for him to be a force for disruption, has shifted after Bannon — firmly in the latter camp — was removed by Chief of Staff John Kelly.
A senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill said that while Kelly has brought more discipline to the West Wing, having an untethered Bannon outside the White House could cause more headaches for the party. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Officials pushing Trump in a more moderate direction, including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, will remain in their roles despite public pressure after Trump’s Charlottesville comments equating neo-Nazis to those opposed to the far-right agenda.
Mnuchin Defends Trump
“The president in no way, shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways,’’ Mnuchin, who is Jewish, said in a statement Saturday that outlined why he planned to continue in his role.
Cohn and Mnuchin will be key players in what’s shaping up as an epic September, with the White House and Congress needing to craft a spending plan and avoid a government shutdown by raising the debt ceiling, while at the same time trying to make progress on Trump’s tax overhaul.
Bannon, who clashed at times with Mnuchin and Cohn, has returned to the conservative website Breitbart, and is pledging to take on establishment Republicans and some of his former colleagues, which could seriously complicate those efforts.
“I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America,’’ Bannon said in an interview with Bloomberg after his departure.
Trump’s shift toward more traditional voices in his orbit could be heard Monday when he addresses the nation about Afghanistan. While its unclear what Trump will announce, the position favored by Bannon and others leery of once again ramping up America’s longest war appears to have been marginalized. At the time Bannon’s departure was announced, Trump was huddled with his national security team at Camp David to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan.
Mattis said Trump engaged in a “rigorous’’ process to come to a decision, and hinted that the decision could include sending more troops.
“I was not willing to make significant troop lifts until we made certain we knew what was the strategy,’’ Mattis told reporters on Sunday. “In that regard, the president has made a decision.’’
On Tuesday, Trump travels to Phoenix, Arizona, for a rally — events that tend to be freewheeling and fraught with drama. Trump has criticized both of the state’s Republican senators and has used the campaign-style events to attack opponents with little regard for political norms.
On Twitter last week, Trump called Arizona Senator Jeff Flake “toxic’’ and said he was glad to see former state Senator Kelli Ward preparing for a primary challenge in 2018.
Trump has also lashed out recently against Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — all at a time when a massive legislative agenda awaits in September, with no time to waste on Twitter wars and other distractions.
The senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill said that while Bannon created friction between Trump and congressional Republicans, his ouster might not change much in the relationship.
Former Representative Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican who’s now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a government relations consulting firm, said last week’s drama will merely widen the gap between Trump and congressional Republicans.
“The party, it seems to me, is detaching itself from Trump,” he said before Bannon’s ouster. “They’ve got to forge their own way.’’
— With assistance by Ben Brody, Chris Strohm, and Mark Niquette