Not quite a month into his presidency, Donald Trump can certainly make the argument that he has delivered on his promise to bring change to Washington. The problem for Trump is that while some of those changes have been cheered by core supporters around the country, they have also motivated his opponents to challenge him at nearly every turn.
Trump’s efforts to deliver on his campaign pledge to shake up Washington have produced mixed results. Trump issued a series of executive orders that pleased supporters but antagonized critics, especially his actions on immigration and health care. His public approval rating hovers around 40 percent, a historic low for a new president and further evidence that the country remains polarized as the 45th president settles in at the White House.
The Flynn scandal
The latest major distraction for Trump is the political fallout in the wake of the resignation of his national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Trump asked Flynn to resign Monday after trust “eroded between the two,” according to White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
Flynn came under fire after misinforming Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his phone conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. late last year. Flynn initially said he did not discuss sanctions on Russia, but later conceded the matter may have come up.
Democrats in Congress have stepped up their call for a broader investigation into Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election campaign and contacts with Trump aides before the inauguration on January 20.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam Schiff of California, said it was time for a full inquiry into any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials. “The national security adviser of the United States had misled other administration officials, who had in turn misled the American people. And they were OK with that,” Schiff told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday.
At Tuesday’s White House briefing, Spicer said the president never instructed Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
It was on Inauguration Day that Trump’s presidency began with a bold promise of political change. “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became rulers of this nation again,” Trump said in his inaugural address.
Trump’s flurry of executive orders on a range of issues in the first weeks of his presidency pleased core supporters like Jim Bowman in Wisconsin. “I know this is trite, but it’s that people wanted change and they saw, in my personal opinion, they saw Donald Trump as someone that, like him or not, things were going to change,” Bowman told AP television.
Bowman is representative of a small slice of the electorate in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — Trump supporters who tipped those states into the Republican electoral vote column in November and enabled the businessman to become president.
So far, despite some of the chaotic moments in the Trump White House, many of those core supporters are hanging with him, said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.
“So you’ve got perhaps 60 percent of the electorate that is persuadable. The other 40 percent, you will never reach them,” said Sabato. “It doesn’t matter what they find out, it doesn’t matter what they publish or air, Trump will still have their support.”
Opposition fired up
Trump’s temporary immigration travel ban sparked fierce opposition around the country and successful legal challenges in federal court.
Supporters like Trump’s bold use of presidential power, but his penchant for executive authority alarms Democrats like Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
“The independence of our judiciary means that our Constitution remains the law of the land, even if President Trump seeks to put himself above the law,” Blumenthal said.
Though wary of Trump’s blunt style, congressional Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan remain supportive as the administration fights for its travel restrictions in the courts.
“Look, I know he is an unconventional president. He gets frustrated with judges. We get frustrated with judges,” said Ryan. “But he is respecting the process, and I think that is what counts at the end of the day.”
Most Republicans prefer to look the other way when asked about Trump’s habit of issuing controversial tweets, including the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
“I’m not going to try to speak for the president. He can speak for himself, and frequently does,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Republicans in Congress are most concerned with undoing what is known as Obamacare, former President Barack Obama's signature health care law, and cutting taxes and regulations, and they are likely to stick with Trump as long as the political base they share is happy, said analyst John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
“If the president is able to succeed with that Congress and some of his initiatives, I think that’s helpful to him," Fortier said. "But if he starts to falter, then I think you really do see that potentially it will be much more difficult to hold the [Republican] party together.”
Given some recent White House missteps, Fortier said some adjustments may be in order.
“We have moved from the campaign into governing mode," he said. "People on the campaign will be moving into positions where they have to get things done, and that by its nature means some compromise and some understanding of the limits of their position.”
Trump’s bold but at times divisive leadership style is likely to be held in check over time in a variety of ways, said American University analyst James Thurber.
“And so this rule of law, transparency, and the media, and all these institutions will check him," Thurber said. "It will be agonizing for some people because of his behavior, but eventually he will be checked in terms of radical changes.”
Trump’s style has won both admirers and detractors. Legal analyst Daniel McLaughlin said the demonstrations against Trump’s executive order on immigration have been “extreme and hysterical.” He added that historically the courts have given presidents great deference in dealing with immigration issues. “So reasonable people can disagree, and I think a lot of the criticism has failed to appreciate that the Trump administration does have reasonable reason for what it is doing,” McLaughlin said.
George Washington University law professor Paul Schiff Berman has a different view of how Trump sees his executive power: “He is going out of his way, it seems to me, to be provocative, to be antagonistic, to push the limits of executive power as far as he can and so forth. And I think all of that activity is tremendously destabilizing to the constitutional democracy.”
It is still very early, but for the moment, supporters and critics alike think it likely that Trump’s aggressive presidential style will continue, drawing kudos from his core fans as well as intense opposition from critics.