By Niall Stanage
President Trump is entering a critical fall, beset by low approval ratings, raw tensions with Republicans on Capitol Hill, an evolving nuclear crisis with North Korea and multiple investigations into his campaign’s possible ties with Russia.
Congress is now returning with the fullest of slates.
This month, lawmakers will seek to raise the debt ceiling, pass a measure to fund the government and provide billions of dollars in relief for Texas and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
There is also the question of whether Republicans can pass significant tax reform, a goal for which Trump made a pitch last week during a visit to Missouri.
And the agenda may get busier.
Trump as early as Tuesday is expected to announce he is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has allowed hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children to get work permits and live free from fear of deportation.
The president is expected to provide six months for the program to wind down, which would give Congress the opportunity to write legislation that could replace it — a difficult, though not impossible, task.
All of this action comes more than half way through a year devoid of significant GOP legislative achievements, despite Republican control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives since January. This is raising pressure on Trump and his allies to do something this fall.
August was a difficult month for Trump, who hit one of the low points of his presidency amid the criticism of his response to fatal violence at white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, Va.
Yet by August’s end, there were some moments in which the most unconventional president of modern times adopted a more orthodox role — and possibly to his advantage.
He has visited the Lone Star State twice since Hurricane Harvey hit and has repeatedly expressed solidarity with those affected.
More broadly, some Republicans take a measure of optimism from the recent arrival of retired Marine Gen. John Kelly as Trump’s chief of staff. Kelly, previously Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, is widely seen as having imbued a once-chaotic White House with a measure of cohesion.
His arrival was followed by the departure of White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, an exit cheered by some Republicans.
The question that looms over everything, as always, is how Trump will behave in the weeks to come.
That question is especially germane as the probes into Russia by special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees intensify.
Republicans in Washington, when granted anonymity, are virtually unanimous in their opinion that the president can be his own worst enemy, making intemperate public remarks or firing off combative tweets that cause more trouble than they’re worth.
The pressure seems likely only to increase. Last week, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, told Yahoo News that the panel had made “tremendous progress in the last eight weeks” investigating alleged Russian links. Swalwell predicted that it would be proceeding at a “pretty dizzying pace” in September.
Even Republicans acknowledge the scale of the challenges Trump faces this month.
“I think it is fraught with peril, politically,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said, arguing that for the administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill alike, survival would be the name of the game in September.
“It’s not about getting victories, it’s about surviving and thinking about the rest of the fall,” Mackowiak added. “This is a crucial final four months of the year. They need to do a year’s work in four months. How this year ends is going to dictate what the political environment is like going into the midterms [in 2018].”
Some Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump already. The New York Times reported late last month that the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had not spoken in several weeks and that McConnell had “privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), once a firm ally of the president, stoked Trump’s ire recently by raising questions about his “stability” and “competence.”
Trump shot back on Twitter: “Strange statement by Bob Corker considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in ’18. Tennessee not happy!”
Similar dissent is evident on policy matters.
Late last week, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) all raised the alarm about reports that Trump was on the brink of ending DACA.
Asked about the overall outlook for Trump, Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer pronounced it “very bad.”
Zelizer noted Trump’s approval ratings and the Russia probes, adding, “he has a restive and angry Congress, and he has Republican elected officials, many of whom are unhappy with how everything has unfolded.”
As September began, Trump’s job approval stood at just 38.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average, with a disapproval number of 56.5 percent.
Trump has been underestimated plenty of times before. His presidential bid was treated as a joke at its outset by many so-called experts. His victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in last November’s election defied the polls and the pundits.
That leaves some observers reluctant to count him out now.
“He has never really had approval ratings that were all that high,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist who is also a columnist for The Hill. “I think a lot of people don’t want to tell pollsters that they like him.”
Feehery argued that a bigger problem was Trump’s “ability to stay focused and to use the bully pulpit to the maximum extent. That’s where he runs into difficulty.”
There is at least an opportunity to ease any immediate crisis over the debt ceiling or a possible government shutdown. Wrapping aid for areas affected by Harvey into the same package could make it almost impossible to vote against.
Meanwhile, the administration evinces confidence, of a kind. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at Friday’s media briefing that it was “going to be a busy September” and that the administration’s message to Congress was simple: “Let’s get to work.”
But the splits within the GOP of which Trump is both a symptom and a cause continue.
Bannon has returned to his former perch at Breitbart News. The organization has been firing rhetorical salvoes at centrist figures from National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn to Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.).
Even as some Trump loyalists maintain that the ship can be put on an even keel, Democrats insist it is taking on water by the day.
“I just don’t see how he accomplishes much of his agenda at all,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “There is too much division within his own party, let alone the divide and polarization nationwide and between the parties.”
“I think it is going to be very difficult to avoid a completely failed first year,” Trippi added. “And often your first year is the only successful year you have.”