Off to the Races

A White House That Can’t Shoot Straight

It was inevitable that Trump and his team would muddle what could have been a post-tax-bill victory lap.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

The NBC News Political Unit’s morning newsletter First Read on Thursday nailed it, noting, “The last two days are a reminder that 2018 will be all about Trump: For those who thought the GOP’s tax law or Democrats’ message might be key parts of the 2018 midterm environment, the first days of the brand-new year have been an important reminder that 2018 will be all about—or mostly about—President Trump.”

The idea that this president and this White House would not step on their own message and not cut short what should be a post-tax-bill victory lap is laughable. Look at the last two days alone—the president’s braggadocio that his nuclear button is “Much bigger & more powerful”; the suggestion of jail for former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and former FBI Director James Comey; Michael Wolff’s tell-all book on the Trump White House palace intrigue and former Trump intimate Steve Bannon’s accusation of “treasonous” behavior on the part of Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort; and various threats of lawsuits.

Regardless of whether Americans approve or disapprove of the tax bill (so far it’s the latter), it’s Trump’s and congressional Republicans’ sole significant legislative accomplishment. So their hope should be a focus on this president, this administration, and this Republican Congress actually accomplishing things and making a difference. But they can’t seem to keep that focus for longer than the nanosecond that is President Trump’s attention span. Even if only a third of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is accurate and not the product of exaggeration (my guesstimate), it would constitute both a scandal and major threat to any conventional White House. Instead it amounts to just another week or two in the tumultuous Trump era.

Trump did get a bump—albeit a small one—from the tax bill’s success. For the week of Dec. 25-31, the Gallup tracking poll gave Trump a 39 percent approval rating, up 2 points from the previous week and 4 points from the week before that, giving him his highest weekly Gallup approval rating since July 10-16. His disapproval rating of 55 percent was down 2 points from the previous week and 5 points lower than two weeks ago, the lowest disapproval since the week of Sept. 18-24. As recently as the three-day average for Nov. 29-Dec. 1, his approval rating was just 33 percent.

Yet even 39 percent still amounts to the lowest of any first-year elected president and equals his Gallup approval rating for the whole year. And SurveyMonkey reports that “over the last two weeks of 2017, President Trump’s approval rating rose from 39 to 44 percent in SurveyMonkey’s tracking, largely as a result of better marks from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.” While up is up, anyone looking for a big boost for the president from the bill’s passage is likely to be disappointed.

The Wolff book, meanwhile, provides a lens through which to view this White House—though likely an imperfect one. Reportedly, Wolff was allowed to hang out in the West Wing, mostly unescorted, while staffers and Trump confidants, perhaps thinking that they were talking off the record, bared their inner thoughts and worst suspicions. My hunch is that there is a more than small amount of literary license, if not outright hooey, in the book, but there is a reason why White Houses in the past haven’t allowed the practice of allowing potentially unfriendly journalists the run of the West Wing. Trump’s campaign and now his White House are a model of indiscretion: people talking out of school, knifing each other with glee, and placing their boss in the worst possible light. This is true even if much of the book is exaggerated, if not made up.

For sometime I have been convinced that, barring a seismic “Black Swan” event, Republican chances of retaining the House and picking up any net seats in the Senate were largely contingent upon both the economy remaining strong and voters, many of whom are unenthusiastic about Trump’s behavior, begrudgingly giving him and his party credit for that improved economy. Yet even with partially mitigating factors such as Republican-friendly congressional district boundaries and a Senate map that could hardly be better for the GOP, this is shaping up to be an ugly election for Republicans.

A wave that in past years might translate into a 40- to 65-seat House loss might just be 20 to 30 seats this November, with 24 seats the tipping point for control. That same wave might normally result in the loss of a half dozen or more Senate seats, with this map translating into a wash or possibly the shift of just a seat or two in either direction. Ironically, given the House lines and Senate seats up as well as the patterns of midterm-election losses for the party in power, had Hillary Clinton won last year we might well be talking about whether the GOP could reach a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate and a massive House edge.

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