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Trump’s lost summer: Aides claim victory, but others see incompetence and intolerance

President Trump walks to Marine One to depart from the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 9. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When President Trump presided over the battle tanks and fighter jets, the fireworks and adoring fans on July 4, he couldn’t have known that the militaristic “Salute to America” — as well as to himself — would end up as the apparent pinnacle of the season.

What followed was what some Trump advisers and allies characterize as a lost summer defined by self-inflicted controversies and squandered opportunities. Trump leveled racist attacks against four congresswomen of color dubbed “the Squad.” He derided the majority-black city of Baltimore as “rat and rodent infested.” His anti-immigrant rhetoric was echoed in a missive that authorities believe a mass shooting suspect posted. His visits to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso after the gun massacres in those cities served to divide rather than heal.

Trump’s economy also began to falter, with the markets ping-ponging based on the president’s erratic behavior. His trade war with China grew more acrimonious. His whipsaw diplomacy at the Group of Seven summit left allies uncertain about American leadership. The president returned from his visit to France in a sour mood, frustrated by what he felt was unfairly negative news coverage of his trip.

The two months between Independence Day and Labor Day offered a fresh and vivid portrait of the president as seen by Trump’s critics — incompetent, indecisive, intolerant and ineffective. 

White House officials promote the summer of 2019 as one of historic achievement for Trump, offering up a list of more than two dozen accomplishments. But privately, many of the president’s advisers and outside allies bemoan what they consider to be a period of missed opportunity and self-sabotage. 

In the final lull before the 2020 campaign starts to intensify this fall, Trump could have worked strategically to solidify his position and broaden his appeal. Instead, his words and actions this summer served to further divide the country and to harden public opinion about the ever-polarizing president.

“You can’t fall off the floor,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “Everybody knows who Donald Trump is. Before he was elected, we knew he grabbed women by the p-word and he was this political hand grenade. If you hate Trump, you hate Trump; if you love Trump, you love Trump.”

Castellanos said that some of the chaos of the summer is mere Washington “kerfuffle,” but what could have lasting impact “is not just the trade war, but a cold war with China and the uncertainty that may well impair economic growth going into November 2020.”

“That’s what we’ll remember from the long, hot summer of 2019,” Castellanos concluded. 

Trump had some victories. In addition to his Independence Day celebration, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s July 24 testimony before two House committees did not have the impact that many Democrats desired, as Mueller offered no new damning evidence against the president. And on Thursday, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that former FBI director James B. Comey — a frequent target of Trump’s ire — had violated FBI policies in his handling of memos that detailed his controversial interactions with the president.

Asked about Trump’s summer, the White House offered a detailed, 26-point list of what officials characterized as key successes. The highlight reel ranged from the highly specific (meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and imposing more sanctions on Iran and Venezuela) to the vague (releasing a strategy that “aims to increase women’s leadership in efforts to prevent conflict and promote security”). 

“I don’t know how anyone could see this summer as anything but successful with the president continuing to deliver on his promises to the American people despite the negative news coverage of this administration,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman. “President Trump has accomplished more at this point in his first term than any president in history and his policies are building a safer, stronger and more secure America.” 

But some White House aides and outside Trump allies offer a grimmer view, describing an administration in which the president has crashed through the remaining guard rails. The chief of staff is still in an “acting” role and jobs that multiple aides once handled are now being filled by fewer staffers, and the president and his team failed to drive a sustained message or capitalize on what they view as winnable fights on the economy and immigration. 

A Republican operative in frequent touch with the White House described the mood from the “staff guys and gals” as one of weariness. “Exhaustion, fatigue, wake us when it’s over,” said the operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to summarize the sentiment of private conversations. “They’re just tired.”

Deere rejected the suggestion that the White House staff is flagging. “Yes, the days are long, but we are doing an incredible amount of work benefiting the American people under the leadership of this president,” Deere said. “I just don’t see people who are exhausted or not able to get the job done.”

Summer, when Congress adjourns for the month of August, traditionally has been a period in which presidents try to take advantage of the relative quiet to set an agenda and drive a favorable media narrative. Some of Trump’s allies lament that he did not seize this opportunity to lay a foundation for his 2020 campaign. 

“Trump squandered a summer of opportunity to enhance his reelection campaign,” Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and chief executive of Canary, a drilling services company, wrote in an email. “While Democrats are divided and focused on their own primary, President Trump could have focused on solving the trade war, a genuine infrastructure plan or a decisive foreign policy victory. Instead, he fanned the flames of the trade war, attacked Baltimore, ‘the squad’ and the Federal Reserve, and failed to add a cornerstone achievement to his 2020 election credentials.”

Eberhart concluded: “As a Republican, all you can do is hope it doesn’t end in a wreck.”

But others point out that by virtue of his unconventional style, Trump is capable of seizing the media spotlight whenever he chooses, regardless of whether Congress is in session. The president, they added, is someone who thrives amid havoc and this summer did not feel demonstrably different from other periods of his presidency. 

“Normally a president’s numbers go up in August because they have the playing field to themselves and you don’t have all these little Chihuahuas nipping at your heels from Congress, but Trump has always marched to his own tune,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Listen on Post Reports: Self-inflicted controversies, squandered opportunities

It is unclear whether Trump will pay a political price for his summertime controversies. A Washington Post average of seven nationally representative polls in August finds Trump’s approval rating at 41 percent, down slightly from a June average of 43 percent in those same polls. 

Trump is not the first president to falter in the summer before his reelection campaign. Former president Barack Obama had a difficult summer in 2011, thanks to a debt ceiling showdown with congressional Republicans, before rebounding to win a second term in 2012. Former president George W. Bush, buffeted by the unending war in Iraq, started to slump in the summer of 2003, although he went on to win handily in 2004. 

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes how President Trump’s recent controversial tweets play right into his 2020 reelection strategy. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Trump stoked weeks of racial animus beginning July 14 with his tweet that four congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Three of the congresswomen were born in the United States and all four members are U.S. citizens.

On July 27, he attacked Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, one of the highest-ranking black Democrats in Congress, and called his Baltimore district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

The first weekend of August, two mass shootings in less than 24 hours — one in El Paso, the other in Dayton — provided another test for the president. In El Paso, 22 people were killed in and near a Walmart close to the U.S.-Mexico border after police believe the alleged gunman posted a statement online warning of a “Hispanic invasion” and mimicking some of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about immigrants.

The president generated more controversy the week after the massacres when he visited the two cities but appeared insufficiently empathetic to many. Following his stop in Dayton, he attacked the city’s mayor, Nan Whaley, and Ohio’s Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown. And in El Paso, he inserted himself into the tragedy by bragging about his crowd size compared with that of Beto O’Rourke — a Democratic candidate for president who had previously represented El Paso in Congress — and flashing a thumbs-up in photos with shooting victims.

Many Democrats had hoped Trump might use the moment to pursue universal background checks and other measures, but that prospect now seems increasingly unlikely after the president backed down under pressure from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights supporters. After another mass shooting in west Texas on Saturday that killed seven people, Trump said the event “really hasn’t changed anything.”

Whaley, in an interview, described Trump’s entire visit to Dayton as “bizarre.”

“He thought it should be all about him and not about the victims and the people who lost their lives, and that’s where the focus has been for us here,” Whaley said. “I’d prefer him to just come in, show some sort of empathy and just be honest and say, ‘I’m not going to do anything because the guys at the NRA own me.’ ”

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D), whose district includes El Paso, was also critical of Trump’s visit, saying it left her and many in her community disappointed. 

“It was a moment that could have been transformative and instead it was a moment that was not just squandered but a moment that left many people in my community, myself included, feeling like we didn’t understand how he could ruin such a profound moment of grief,” Escobar said in an interview.

 The congresswoman added, “The president of the United States has dehumanized people of color and immigrants. . . . He has an obligation to rehumanize. It takes more than showing up. It takes a dialogue with the community. It takes true remorse.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.