After another rocky week for Donald Trump, former officials and experts see a president likely to become even more bold and unpredictable as his path to reelection appears to grow more difficult.
From a tumbling approval rating and worries among voters about his economic stewardship to his firing of another national security adviser to remarks at a 9/11 commemoration ceremony at the Pentagon that raised eyebrows to a special election in a Republican stronghold that was closer than expected, the president’s brash style was on full display.
The president was in peak Trump form all week, attacking Democrats and the media — even suggesting news outlets use polls as “weapons” against him.
The survey from The Washington Post and ABC News put his approval rating at 38 percent — down from 44 percent in June — along with a 56 percent disapproval rating. It also highlighted how Americans are more and more concerned about the state of the economy and the president’s trade war with China. When asked about Trump’s handling of the economy, 46 percent said they approve, down from 51 percent in July.
Trump took to Twitter as the morning news programs chattered about the poll and the uphill reelection fight it appears to show him facing. He called it “the worst and most inaccurate poll of any taken prior to the 2016 Election,” adding: “It was a Fake Poll by two very bad and dangerous media outlets.” He then called it “Sad!” and “fixed.”
Privately, however, White House aides acknowledge that polling data suggests they have a tough fight ahead to help their boss secure a second term. Those conversations illustrate how Trump’s public persona often runs counter to how his aides are feeling.
‘Mr. Tough Guy’
The week showed how the president, despite his claims to the contrary, seems to prefer aides around him who mostly agree with his whims. Former national security adviser John Bolton too often disagreed with Trump’s foreign policy ideas, and was either fired or so fed up with his boss that he quit.
Trump taunted Bolton later in the week as “Mr. Tough Guy,” a reference to his long-espoused hawkish views on using U.S. military force in a plethora of scenarios while not wanting to be tough enough — in Trump’s words — in addressing hotspots like Venezuela. The taunts continued Thursday evening in Baltimore addressing House Republicans at their annual policy retreat when the president went after the two leading Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“I hit Pocahontas way too early. I thought she was gone,” he said, using his preferred racial epithet to mock Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, before jabbing at the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden: “She’s emerged from the ashes, and now it looks like she could beat sleepy Joe. He’s falling asleep. He has no idea what the hell he’s doing or saying.”
Trump also continued his reelection message intended to raise concerns among voters that whoever emerges as his general election foe is part of a Democratic Party that has swung to the left.
“It’s the Democrats and it’s the media who are fighting two battles,” Trump told House GOP members. “They’re colluding and they’re obstructing.”
Analysts see a president growing concerned about the economy and his increasingly tough path to the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win in 2020.
“If the election were held tomorrow, President Trump would lose — badly. Suburban voters are deserting him, and his handlers are beginning to worry about non-college white women as well,” said William Galston, a former Clinton White House official now with the Brookings Institution. “Very few voters care about Bolton, but they do care about instability in government, because it makes them uncertain about the future.
“The president’s foreign policy ventures thus far have come to naught or — in the case of China — less than naught, and the economy is slowing, in part because uncertainty is the enemy of investment,” Galston said in an email. “If this continues, his only winning strategy will be to tear the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee to shreds before he/she has a chance to start the general election campaign. This is what I expect him to do, to the tune of $200 million, next spring.”
Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, said this week was like so many others because “the thing about President Trump is that every week feels like a roller coaster with five separate drops and climbs.
“What he cares most about is his popularity, which appears to be waning and which became manifest in the [Post-ABC] poll right at the beginning of the week,” Hetherington said. “If past is prelude, this will make him even more reactive than usual. Expect six or seven drops and climbs on that roller coaster in the weeks ahead, or until a poll that is more comforting to him comes out.”
‘Don’t rule much out’
White House aides dismiss such critiques.
Eric Ueland, Trump’s top envoy to Capitol Hill, told Roll Call in an interview last week that the president’s handling of the economy has triggered “expansion with all the metrics.”
Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on Thursday told reporters, “don’t rule much out for President Trump.”
“Look what he’s done [and] just what’s happened just this week. Just this summer,” she said. “He’s had two back-to-back Supreme Court decisions in favor of his border security policy.”
On Friday morning, Trump lashed out at the House Judiciary Committee after the panel on Thursday voted along party lines to approve a set of guidelines under which it could move forward with formal impeachment proceedings against him.
“How do you impeach a President who has helped create perhaps the greatest economy in the history of our Country? All time best unemployment numbers, especially for Blacks, Hispanics, Asians & Women. More people working today than ever before,” Trump tweeted.
“You don’t impeach Presidents for doing a good (great!) job. No Obstruction, No Collusion, only treasonous crimes committed by the other side, and led by the Democrats. Sad!” he added.
How do you impeach a President who has helped create perhaps the greatest economy in the history of our Country? All time best unemployment numbers, especially for Blacks, Hispanics, Asians & Women. More people working today than ever before. Rebuilt Military & Choice for Vets…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2019
But Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgeting for the Clinton White House, predicted the president and his team will spend the next 14 months looking for ways to portray Trump as doing what he has to do to fulfill his 2016 campaign promises — including building a wall along the southern border to slow migrant flows into the country.
“What kind of further actions is [acting White House Chief of Staff] Mick Mulvaney planning to end-run the power of the purse?” Adams said, referring to White House efforts to shift funds to the border wall project that Congress appropriated for other things. “How royal will this presidency try to become this fall?”