Trump Gets a Hard Reality Check

The president’s first month has been an extended lesson on the limits of presidential power and his ability to operate within those constraints.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 15, 2017, 8 p.m.

Donald Trump wanted to start his presidency with the shock and awe of rapid change. Instead, almost everywhere he looks, he’s stuck in the mud of grinding trench warfare.

Trump’s tumultuous first month has been an extended lesson in the limits of a president’s power—as well as the limits of Trump’s own intellectual and emotional ability to operate within those constraints. Whether he can regroup will depend on whether he can find a more effective response to those limits than the rage, bluster, and disdain he’s exhibited so far.

In his strident appearances on Sunday’s political talk shows, senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller declared that “the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

But in fact, Trump is facing effective questioning from virtually every counterforce, at home and abroad, that can constrain a president. A partial list would include federal courts, the career federal civil service, the “deep state” of the intelligence and law-enforcement communities, spirited investigative-reporting teams, a highly energized public opposition, state and local governments, and other nations. Now a squall of GOP senators is demanding broader investigation of the administration’s Russia dealings, following the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

So far, federal courts have checked Trump most forcefully. That follows the pattern of the past two presidents. Both George W. Bush (mostly on national security and surveillance) and Barack Obama (primarily on domestic issues like immigration) saw the courts block key initiatives—as several federal courts, led by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, have already done with Trump by enjoining his executive order temporarily barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Many of the key legal fights against Obama were led by Republican state attorneys general, who repeatedly sued him en masse on initiatives from immigration to climate change. That opened a new front in checking a president; states controlled by the opposite party had not systematically sued Bush or Bill Clinton. Now, Democratic attorneys general have quickly adopted the GOP model, with 15 states joining Washington and Minnesota to sue Trump over the immigration ban.

Trump has also faced a swarm of damaging leaks from within his administration, the most consequential of which led to Flynn’s resignation after The Washington Post disclosed he had discussed loosening sanctions with Russia’s U.S. ambassador before Trump took office. Perpetual infighting among the distinct orbits of Trump’s skeletal staff partly explains the torrent of leaks. More worrying for Trump is how it reflects resistance to his agenda and skepticism about his competence among career government officials, particularly in intelligence, national security, and law enforcement.

Perhaps the most ominous fact in the Post’s scoop was that no fewer than nine current and former intelligence officials had confirmed Flynn’s communications. That sends the White House two equally chilling signals: that the broader counter-intelligence investigation into the Trump team’s contacts with Russia during the presidential campaign is progressing, and that at least some involved are fearful it will be shut down without public disclosure. Several other reports reinforce that message, from an under-noticed CNN report that intelligence officials have confirmed some aspects of the “dossier” on Trump and Russia, to Tuesday night’s even more explosive New York Times and CNN stories on contacts between Trump advisers and Russian officials during the campaign.

Other nations are asserting limits, too. After loudly questioning the One China policy during the transition, Trump last week quietly reaffirmed it in his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, European officials say that Trump’s team, facing near-unified international resistance, has privately acknowledged it will uphold the Iranian nuclear deal he publicly disdains.

Amid all these institutional challenges, Trump is also facing a ferociously mobilized domestic opposition marked by the largest protests and highest disapproval ratings confronting any newly elected president. It took nearly 600 days for Obama’s disapproval rating to reach even 50 percent in Gallup polling; Trump hit 55 percent disapproval in 23 days, far faster than any predecessor. That discontent may not affect Trump’s policy decisions, but it has already prompted congressional Democrats to oppose him more systematically than they—or the White House—initially envisioned.

Presidents have many levers to drive the national agenda, and Trump has shown he will use them aggressively. If he can confirm his nominee Neil Gorsuch, a Supreme Court with five Republican-appointed justices might prove cooler to legal challenges against him. Trump’s support remains strong among his core voters, which will encourage congressional Republicans to lock arms behind their joint agenda. But in politics weakness feeds on itself, and it’s usually not very long before a president who cannot master events finds himself at their mercy.

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