June 20, 2017 at 5:40 PM
by John Wagner and Ashley Parker
Battered by his first five months in the White House, President Trump is in many ways returning to campaign mode — concentrating his official travel on swing states that he won, bringing old political hands back into his orbit and continuing to relive his 2016 victory over and over again.
The latest example will come Wednesday, when Trump's campaign committee plans to stage an old-fashioned political rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the president is likely to get the kind of public adulation that he isn't experiencing much of the time in Washington.
The Iowa trip follows visits over the past two weeks to Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida — official White House trips that nonetheless featured orchestrated settings where Trump was surrounded by political supporters.
"I think it's a good strategy because it drags reporters with him, and the one thing the Washington press corps still hasn't gotten is why people in Youngstown — or pick your favorite city in the Midwest — still like him," said Barry Bennett, who served as a political adviser to Trump during last year's campaign. "I hope that gets him into friendly audiences, but I also hope when he gets out there he talks about jobs, jobs, jobs and not anything else, because all of his power is going to be derived by the rising economy."
Public opinion surveys have continued to show Trump with the lowest job-approval ratings of any president in modern history at this point in his tenure. In a new CBS poll released Tuesday, his approval rating was 36 percent, with 57 percent disapproval — the lowest mark in the network's surveys since Trump became president.
Trump's rally in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday will be his first official campaign event since a late-April appearance in Pennsylvania — another swing state he narrowly won — that marked the president's 100th day in office.
But several recent events in a stepped-up travel schedule have had many of the atmospherics of a rally, bar the name.
On Friday, for example, Trump fans packed a theater in Miami, where he traveled to announce a new policy toward Cuba. Chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A." broke out before he appeared, and he was greeted by a chorus of "Trump, Trump, Trump."
"I am so thrilled to be back here with all of my friends in Little Havana," Trump said. "I love it. I love the city."
"We love you!" a member of the crowd yelled back.
Outside, "Make America Great Again" hats and other Trump paraphernalia were available for purchase.
"A lot of these spaces are safe places for Trump," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant and frequent Trump critic, who added that his travels appear to be part "nostalgia tour" and part reassurance.
"He loves rallies," Wilson said. "He likes big, cheering crowds. These are things that make him feel everything is under control and everything is going to be okay."
Trump's official travels also appear designed with an eye toward his next election. Last week, Trump visited Wisconsin, a state where he prevailed last year over Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 22,748 votes. It is a state that Trump would very much like to hang onto in 2020.
Charles Franklin, a government scholar and pollster at Marquette Law School, noted that Trump's travels have been concentrated in the Milwaukee area, in the southeastern region of the state, where he won but did not do as well as 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
"He's coming to the area of the state where he most needs to build up good will among Republican voters," Franklin said.
Franklin said the trip also offered Trump another benefit: continuing to strengthen his relationship with Gov. Scott Walker (R), a onetime rival for the GOP nomination who's since become a vocal Trump supporter.
The president's travels throughout the country often garner more generous — and positive — headlines in the local press.
"Trump talks health care, technical jobs in local visit," was the next-day headline on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — far more favorable than the cascading Russia-related stories that dominated national news reports.
Trump's communications team has begun including local news clips in his daily news roundup, partly to demonstrate how his message is playing outside the nation's capital and partly to help buoy his mood, aides say.
Brian Fraley, a Wisconsin-based Republican consultant, said GOP activists were also heartened by the president's trip, which included a fundraiser for Walker and an event highlighting workforce development initiatives. "Midwesterners of every political persuasion like it when we're not treated merely as flyover country," Fraley said.
"From a strategic standpoint, it makes sense for Trump to do more events like these, even if it doesn't move the needle on the pubic policy debates nationally," Fraley said. "When he gets out of the Beltway bubble, he can control the narrative. He'd much rather talk infrastructure, apprenticeships and jobs than special counsels and congressional inquiries."
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there are clear benefits to Trump taking his message on the road.
"I think anytime the president can talk directly to the American people, that's a good thing," she said. "It's good for the president, and it's good for the American people to be able to get a message directly from him."
Trump's trip Wednesday will take him to eastern Iowa, where there is a large concentration of white working-class voters and where manufacturing was once dominant — fertile political territory for the president, said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Iowa.
"It would be easy to say this is a visit with an eye to 2020," Goldford said. "But I think by all accounts, the president gets energized by appearing in front of supporters. He gets to say things in person that he says on Twitter. He just gets his batteries recharged."
The president's travels also offer a chance to reminisce about the 2016 election. Two weeks ago, Trump traveled to Ohio, ostensibly to talk about his plans to invest in the country's infrastructure. But the president devoted a significant portion of his remarks to complaining about resistance from Democrats in Washington.
"Every single thing is obstruction," Trump said, adding that "if I was in that party, I would not do it that way. I'd be doing positive things. That's why they lost the House, it's why they lost the Senate, it's why they lost the White House."
The president, meanwhile, keeps in contact with aides from the campaign trail and others from his political orbit, including Corey Lewandowski, his controversial first campaign manager, who was eventually fired; David Bossie, his deputy campaign manager; and Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and former political adviser.
The White House recently considered having Lewandowski and Bossie helm a "war room" to push back on the Russia investigation, but the project never materialized amid resistance from some White House aides. Nonetheless, one official said Monday, the duo could join the White House at any time.
Trump's reliance on former hands reflects his relatively small circle, his comfort level with longtime loyalists and his hesitancy to trust newcomers.
But it also reflects a harsher truth: Just as Trump's seemingly quixotic presidential campaign had trouble attracting top political talent, the White House — despite reaching out to a number of seasoned Washington insiders — has had trouble persuading top operatives to join his chaotic administration.
Trump's early loyalists are among the comparably small group of Republicans willing to consider taking jobs inside his turbulent West Wing. And a president who rose to reality television stardom on the catch phrase "You're fired!" is loath to actually dismiss aides, said one former adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.
"There is no 'out' — there's just 'not in,' but eventually you work your way back in," the adviser said. "His circle of friends, the people that he knows, is so small that when you only know 50 people in Washington, you can't really throw one out to get to 49."