Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
President Donald Trump can’t — or won’t — keep his eye on the prize.
Trump has always used chaos as a tool to disorientate his rivals but now risks wounding himself with his disruptive behavior, as a critical moment looms for his presidency with a generational tax reform bill on the Senate launchpad.
A traditional White House would ensure every comment, tweet, event and public message right now is geared toward the cause of passing a measure that is likely to be critical to the Republican Party’s electoral fate next year.
Yet Trump is, as ever, getting pulled into sideshows away from the main event.
During a frenzied few days over the Thanksgiving weekend into Monday, Trump revived his disparaging “Pocahontas” nickname for Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren at an Oval Office meeting with Native American war heroes. He mounted a fresh attack on press freedom. Two top officials claimed to be the boss of a key government agency. And The New York Times reported that the President was privately casting doubt on the authenticity of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape on which he boasted about sexually assaulting women — and for which he apologized way back in the 2016 campaign. (White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday that Trump stands by his original apology for his recorded remarks.)
But Trump will make a fresh bid to concentrate the White House’s political firepower while on Capitol Hill for lunch Tuesday, trying to inject steel into Republican senators’ spines amid worries about the content and impact of the bill.
“It’s going to be a tremendous tax cut — the biggest in the history of our country,” Trump said at the White House on Monday in a preview of his message to senators. “I think we’re going to have great receptivity.”
His optimism may be a little premature, since a number of Republican senators have yet to sign on to the bill, which Senate leadership hopes to jam through as early as this week.
The President’s appearance before a caucus in which he has many vehement critics will be a test of whether his political capital — and focus — can survive yet another extraordinary set of controversies battering his administration.
In some ways, such staggering convention-busting behavior has become routine in Trump’s 10 months in office.
It’s the kind of theater that Trump’s supporters outside Washington say is irrelevant to their affection for the President. They often fault the media for taking the daily circus so seriously.
Yet the fact that the unprecedented has become the norm in 2017 doesn’t mean the cascade of stunning events is not worth noting, or that it will not eventually have a long-term and damaging impact on the Trump presidency.
Most immediately, the new tumult raging around Trump cannot make it any easier to pass tax reform — the President’s last chance to record a significant political victory in an otherwise legislatively barren first year in power. Senators who will be asked to cast a tough vote are about to again be besieged by questions about the President’s behavior. Multiple distractions surrounding the President also raise the question of his capacity to sell the plan to the public.
“I think it creates a huge distraction to these members of Congress, and I think they quickly want to move on to something more substantive,” Republican strategist Kevin Madden said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” when asked about Trump’s comments on Warren.
“They are just sick and tired of having to deal with these type of distractions.”
The controversy swirling around the White House also plays into consistent and profound themes that repeatedly arise in this presidency and may make it difficult for Trump to enact his agenda and have a successful administration.
His comment at an event Monday honoring Navajo code talkers about Pocahontas, his nickname for Warren, was not just in poor taste. It also renewed debate over the President’s inner thoughts about race and his apparent obliviousness to the standards of decorum and propriety expected of a head of state as he stands in the Oval Office.
Amazingly, the event took place under an Oval Office portrait of 19th-century President Andrew Jackson, who permitted white farmers to drive Native Americans out of tribal lands.
“One of the big problems is that the President thinks in a way of a stream of consciousness and/or just his inner monologue,” said Madden. “Ninety-nine percent of Americans would never say something like that, and he actually blurts it out at an event like this.”
The power struggle over who should run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, meanwhile — budget chief Mick Mulvaney or outgoing director and Obama appointee Richard Cordray’s designated successor, Leandra English — opens a window into the nature of Trumpism itself.
Mulvaney’s warning that the agency, tasked with protecting consumers from abuses by the banking industry and credit card firms, had “frightening” and unaccountable powers suggested a rollback of regulatory authority along the lines of a project that former Trump political guru Steve Bannon called the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Mulvaney showed up at the CFPB Monday with doughnuts in an effort to win over staff. He made clear he was going nowhere, at least unless he was ordered to leave by a judge who is now overseeing the case.
“Since my name is on the door, I want to be here,” said Mulvaney.
The fight over the future of the CFPB at least is an example of the kinds of ideological duels that unfold when one administration hands over to another of a different party. Trump’s assaults on the press are another matter.
At the weekend, the President fired off an unprovoked attack on CNN International on Twitter, decrying the work of reporters and camera crews who risk their lives around the world as “fake.”
He tweeted on Monday that he would award a “fake news trophy” to the organization that produces the “most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted” coverage of “your favorite President (me).”
Trump has repeatedly indicated that he has little respect for the free press during his presidency, prompting critics to warn he has little respect for the Constitution that enshrines those freedoms.
“This kind of language contributes to heightened risk against (journalists)” Frank Smyth of Global Journalist Security, which trains reporters for hostile war zones, told CNN. “It gives a green light to despotic regimes around the world, as well as their supporters, to take actions against these journalists.”
The New York Times report that Trump was questioning the authenticity of the “Access Hollywood” tape may indicate he’s also indulging in another favored tactic, the floating of conspiracy theories to discredit established truth.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders insisted that the President “hasn’t changed his position” on the tape.