Donald Trump’s presidency is only one month old, but already the buzzards are circling. The president cheered supporters by assailing his critics at yesterday’s press conference, but there is little doubt that the Trump White House is struggling to keep its momentum. The drama over Michael Flynn’s departure and the defeat of Labor nominee Pudzer raise concerns over organization and focus, and feed headlines reporting “borderline chaos.”
Opponents on the Left are gleefully lining up more demonstrations, creating more obstruction in Congress and ripping the president in the media. Unimaginably, after suffering epic losses, Democrats are beginning to imagine a political comeback. Time for triage.
First, some perspective. At this point in his presidency, Bill Clinton’s White House was in disarray. His chief of staff, a lifelong friend named Mack McLarty, a person described by his grade school teacher as "Just a real nice boy who grew up into a real nice young man," was way over his head, unable to rein in the bigger-than-life personalities that typically occupy the West Wing. Infighting between the staffs of the president and Hillary was undermining the young administration. Chaos reined.
Bob Woodward chronicled those days in his book "The Agenda, Inside the Clinton White House." In it, he describes a Bill Clinton prone to rages and dithering, and as one reviewer put it: “a president elected to reform, but [who] is overwhelmed by an entrenched Congress and the deficit voodoo doll left to him by 14 years of Republicans. He has surrounded himself with the best, the brightest and the most inexperienced…”
Sound familiar? Woodward also reveals how Clinton staffers leaked damaging information – about each other and the president -- to the press. George Stephanopoulos, one of Clinton’s closest aides, told a reporter that the president was incapable of making decisions, while others took potshots at Hillary’s healthcare initiative, Bill’s “dishonest” budget and so on.
There’s a reason D.C. is called a swamp.
What’s different today? Trump faces an extraordinarily hostile media, which Clinton did not. Though some in the press criticized Clinton’s inexperienced apparatchiks, most supported the president’s agenda. They were not out for blood.
Not only is Trump skewered by the media at every turn, he is also facing opposition from the intelligence community, Democrats, activists supporting environmental and social causes, academia and even a good slug of his own party.
And, from time to time, he throws gasoline on the smoldering rage ignited by the election.
What can Trump do to turn things around?
First, it may be that he should take a page from the Clinton playbook and bring in a time-tested barracuda chief of staff (think Rahm Emmanuel). Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax Media, says Priebus is over his head; it’s possible the former RNC Chair is simply too nice a guy to knock heads. It wasn’t until hard-knuckle Leon Panetta became Clinton’s Chief of Staff in July 1994 that the White House got its act together. Given the hostility arrayed against him, Trump can’t wait that long. An ideal candidate would look like Newt Gingrich without the ego, or Chris Christie without the ambition.
Second, the president should get out of the Swamp Bubble every few weeks and go talk to the people. He is planning a rally-type event at the Orlando-Melbourne Airport this coming weekend; it’ a start. Trump is rejuvenated by his supporters. Trump needs to remind people that he loves the United States and he is working day and night to shake up the system. They’re on his side, but both he and they could use a little love. And yes- stick to the teleprompter.
Third, Mr. Trump needs to erect a speedbump in his Twitter feed. Just one set of eyes, one person who has the authority to say “go” or “no-go” on the 3 am tweets. Trump is engaging, still, in too many petty battles, when there are big ones to be fought. However, he should not shut it down; his tweets have increased in popularity since his inauguration, being “favorited” on average 120,000 times, and retweeted over 40,000 times. Those who are irate over the mainstream media’s treatment of their president are delighted he can address them directly, and they can respond.
Fourth, Trump needs to convene an intense weekend working session with Tom Price, head of HHS, and the GOP leadership in Congress. They need to lock the doors until a solid plan for replacing Obamacare emerges. Time to tell people what the bill is, and how it will be enacted over solid resistance from Democrats. Executive actions are great, and denote action, but Obamacare and tax reform require a big legislative push.
Finally, Trump should invite John McCain and Lindsay Graham to lunch, and hear them out. Both are respected GOP senior statesmen and they are aligned against the president. Their resistance will give cover to others, and the president needs a united party. Some of it is policy; some is personal. Trump has a big personality; he must win them over.
Trump needs to get the train back on the tracks. Andy Card, chief of staff for George W. Bush, stresses the importance of these early days: “The first one hundred days ends on April 30th. The president will be measured on his campaign promises, his commitment, his direction, his ability to lead on April 30th.” Trump has popular backing for most of his agenda; he will lose support if he gets so mired in minor controversies that he fails to achieve his goals. He cannot let that happen; it is too important for the future of the country.