Donald Trump has been president for 80 days, and he's now taken part in perhaps the most solemn presidential duty there is: authorizing military action. He's also waged his first big legislative fight, gotten a Supreme Court justice confirmed and battled the lowest approval ratings for a new president in modern history.
With that as the backdrop, here are four things we can say about President Trump at this early juncture.
Except maybe his family. Maybe.
Trump has long been thought to be a man with no true political convictions and no real political allies. Both of these ideas have been driven home in his first three months as president: It seems everything is subject to review at all times.
On a policy front, Trump never moved to prosecute Hillary Clinton, as he promised to do repeatedly on the campaign trail. And he seemed practically overjoyed to move past Obamacare repeal after just a few weeks, even emphasizing that he wished it didn't have to be his first priority. Trump also threatened to call the “One China” policy into question and go after China for unfair trade practices, before affirming his support for it. And last week, he launched strikes against Syria despite previously warning President Barack Obama against them and saying they could lead to World War III.
As for his political alliances, Trump seems to oscillate between strategies. For a while he wasn't mincing words in targeting the conservative House Freedom Caucus for killing the health-care bill. Trump even appeared to target specific members for primary defeat, including Reps. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.). But then Vice President Pence was dispatched to unsuccessfully attempt to rekindle the health-care bill by going through the Freedom Caucus. Trump has also flirted with working with Democrats intermittently.
And even within his own White House, nobody seems to be immune from getting on Trump's bad side. As The Fix's Callum Borchers wrote, basically every senior adviser — now up to and including Stephen K. Bannon — has been the subject of reports suggesting they've alienated Trump and/or lost clout. Even Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly rubbed him the wrong way by going skiing during the health-care debate. And the question now is whether Trump will go in Bannon's direction, or Kushner's.
Usually with a politician, you can get a sense for who they are based upon their personal loyalties with and the policies they tout. In Trump's case, everything is negotiable — and is often being renegotiated in his own head.
Anybody who thought Trump's “birther” campaign — or his suggestion that Ted Cruz's father may have been involved in the Kennedy assassination or his embrace of Alex Jones — was theater should now know better. It's a big part of who he is. And he will never be convinced otherwise.
Trump's first few months have included the claims that:
- Millions of people voted illegally in the election.
- His inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, contrary to all evidence.
- Obama is secretly fomenting the protests of his administration.
- Obama authorized surveillance against his campaign.
- Susan E. Rice broke the law by seeking to unmask the identities of Trump associates in intelligence reports.
Trump's willingness to pursue debunked and evidence-free theories shows no sign of abating as president — no matter how much skepticism it draws and how much even Republicans rebuke him for it.
Related to the point above, Trump opponents will often argue that each and every one of the sideshows listed above is a calculated move to distract from Trump's other problems, like the Russia investigations. During the campaign, after all, Trump seemed to drown out his opponents with a never-ending stream of provocation and controversy.
I would say two things:
The first is that not everything is a deliberate distraction. The Trump White House and Trump himself have reinforced over and over again that there simply isn't much of a plan in place. Trump is often a victim of his own whims, and his staff have repeatedly proved that they lack message discipline or really anything resembling a coherent media strategy.
The second is that these distractions aren't working and won't work. The Russia story continues to develop, and the idea that the media or the American people are simply going to drop it is far-fetched. Trump is president now, and everything having to do with him is run through with a fine-toothed comb. The story is simply too compelling and consequential for distractions to overcome it.
What's more, some of these alleged “distractions” also have to do with the Russia investigation — which, if they are intended to distract for Russia, would be curious distractions to choose.
Trump's strategy throughout his political life has been to focus on the base, but that's only gotten him so far.
His approval rating in most polls is around 40 percent — suggesting that the GOP base is standing behind him and not many others are. And given that Republicans control Congress, that might seem to be okay.
But those majorities are proving unwieldy. As the health-care debate showed, you've got moderates who are still unconvinced that aligning with Trump and his agenda is in their long-term interests, and you've got conservatives who are so used to demanding purity and saying no that they can't seem to kick the habit with Trump.
Trump reveled in rocking the boat of the official Republican Party in the primaries. But the boat is still rocking 80 days into his presidency, and Trump has yet to figure out how to steady the ship.