Donald Trump endured in a single week the kind of policy disarray, legislative failure and vulgar White House staff infighting that might take a full term for any other president to accumulate.
His manic, seven-day stretch was capped Friday afternoon by Trump’s announcement — on Twitter — that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was exiting the administration. He’ll be replaced by Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who has delighted Trump by executing with vigor the president’s promised crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
Many weeks have been bad weeks for the president, who has yet to sign a major piece of legislation and is dogged by an investigation into possible ties between his campaign and the Russian government. But after the Senate’s failure to pass legislation to repeal Obamacare, resistance from the military on Trump’s attempt to rewrite transgender policy via Twitter and even the Boy Scouts distancing themselves from the president, he finds his administration in a spiral.
Kelly represents a course correction at a time when lawmakers, the bureaucracy and the business community are increasingly less fearful of Trump’s wrath. Disenchantment is setting in with voters wooed by his promises to bring a businessman’s outlook to Washington — and above all, to get things done.
Each new administration has little more than a year to achieve its biggest goals before political campaigning and Washington inertia overtake policy making. For Trump, isolated and depleted of political capital, that window is rapidly closing. He still wants a tax code overhaul, a border wall, and an infrastructure program. But those grand ambitions feel ever more out of sync with reality after the week that was.
Fifty-five percent of Americans view Trump unfavorably, according to a Bloomberg poll published this month. While he still enjoys strong support among Republicans, 40 percent of the broader population described their opinion of the president as “very unfavorable.”
Obamacare repeal was felled by Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom the president knocked as "not a war hero" almost exactly two years ago. Congress rubbed in the failure by instead passing by veto-proof margins legislation to ratchet up sanctions on Russia, against Trump’s wishes.
The votes came just hours after Priebus submitted his resignation to Trump, according to White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. While she said the president and his chief of staff had discussed a possible departure for two weeks, the issue appeared forced when the New Yorker published communication director Anthony Scaramucci’s profane tirade against Priebus and Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
Several aides were reluctant to discuss their observations or personal feelings about the matter, fearing Scaramucci’s threats that he would “fire everybody” that he suspects of leaking to reporters.
Priebus and Scaramucci both traveled with Trump to Long Island on Friday for a speech on crime. The two men were not seen speaking, or even in close proximity, by reporters aboard Air Force One.
But Priebus’s ouster may portend a further White House shakeup. The former Republican National Committee chairman hired many staffers to bolster Trump’s shoestring campaign operation, and his loyalists now worry their time in the West Wing may also be short.
As if the infighting and Obamacare struggles weren’t enough, Trump at every turn this week seemed to generate fresh controversy.
A Cabinet official in the doghouse, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, suffered through a week of belittling tweets and other slights from his boss.
Trump’s hastily tweeted ban on transgender service members on Wednesday caught the Pentagon and Congress by surprise and earned the White House a rebuke by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which said the military would not implement the policy until the White House provides further details.
Even a simple address to the Boy Scouts of America’s annual jamboree on Monday devolved into a political screed that prompted the head of the organization to apologize.
And on Friday, in his speech to law enforcement officers in Long Island, Trump suggested they shouldn’t be afraid to be rougher with suspects — “please don’t be too nice,” he said — and suggested that human trafficking is “worse now than maybe it has been in the history of this world.” The millions of Americans born of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are evidence otherwise.
To top it all off, North Korea tested another intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday.
Early in the congressional debate over repealing and modifying Obamacare, it appeared that despite his historically low approval rating Trump’s support among Republicans would be enough to scare intransigent lawmakers into line. But the Senate vote in Friday’s early hours demonstrated that the threat of a Twitter scolding by the president isn’t enough to get hard things done.
The departure of veteran Republican hands from the West Wing served as a clear signal to the Washington establishment that the president isn’t learning on the job. Washington neophyte Scaramucci’s appointment as communications director — a traditionally behind-the-scenes job focused on long-term message strategy — was an indication Trump is not serious about the detailed and often boring work required to achieve policy victories.
Trump’s allies argue that the president’s actual policies resonate outside the bubble of the Beltway, and say that his supporters not only aren’t concerned about staff infighting, but are excited by characters like Scaramucci who vocally defend the president.
“I think Anthony is a breath of fresh air coming into the White House," Jason Miller, a veteran of Trump’s campaign, said Friday on CNN. "I love his focus on the leaks and I think he’s going to be a great teammate.”
They point to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Trump’s focus on deregulation as promises kept to his base. A booming stock market and steady growth in employment help cushion the impact of his legislative and personnel troubles.
Trump’s allies expect Kelly’s appointment to restore a rudder to the West Wing. The retired Marine Corps general is respected within the administration for his initial success reducing undocumented immigration and his commitment to Trump’s campaign promise of a wall on the southern border. He’ll start his job on Monday, convening a Cabinet meeting shortly after his swearing-in.
"The entire administration loves him and no one is comparable," Sanders told reporters on Friday.
But even Trump’s signature assurances of future victories rang hollow in the aftermath of his disastrous week.
On the airport tarmac in New York, reporters shouted questions about the defeat of the health care bill. The president at first offered only a wave. After a moment, he added, "It’s going to be fine," before ducking into his armored limousine.