The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s photo op play: Facing impeachment, the president strives to look hard at work

President Trump eats Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. troops during a surprise visit to Bagram air base in Afghanistan on Thursday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As Democrats in Congress push to impeach him, President Trump has toured a manufacturing plant in Texas, boasted about economic gains and signed numerous bills. He served turkey to U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving and grieved with the families of fallen service members at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

And next week, Trump is scheduled to jet to London to meet with European allies and be received at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II.

Sure, Trump has been consumed by the impeachment proceedings, popping off daily, if not hourly, about what he dubs a “hoax.” But he and his aides also have staged photo opportunities and public events designed to showcase the president on the job — a strategy one year out from the election to convince the American people that he is hard at work for them at the same time that Democrats are trying to remove him from office.

“I’m working my ass off,” Trump told a thunderous rally crowd of roughly 20,000 on Tuesday night in Sunrise, Fla. He added: “The failed Washington establishment is trying to stop me because I’m fighting for you and because we’re winning. It’s very simple.”

Trump is taking a page out of the Clinton playbook. Then-President Bill Clinton survived his 1998 impeachment in part because the economy was roaring and because he appeared to many voters to be relentlessly focused on doing the business of the American people. When Clinton left office in 2001, Gallup measured his job approval rating at 66 percent.

Clinton had a built-in advantage that Trump does not enjoy: popularity. Throughout his second term, Clinton’s approval rating hovered in the high 50s and 60s, whereas Trump’s has been mired below 50 percent.

Still, Clinton’s experience has been instructive to Trump, who recently met in the Oval Office with former Clinton strategist Mark Penn, who counseled the president to focus on governing and travel frequently.

David Axelrod, who served as senior adviser in the Obama White House, said Trump’s strategy has been “smart politics,” though he noted that it remains to be seen whether the famously undisciplined president will sustain it through a likely Senate impeachment trial.

“The images of the president with cheering troops and performing other magisterial and ministerial functions of the office are a way of signifying that he is still in command, doing the job, rather than on the run,” Axelrod said.

During a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Bagram air base on Nov. 28, President Trump said he has reopened peace talks with the Taliban. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump interrupted his Thanksgiving vacation here in Florida with a 36-hour trip to Afghanistan, where he made a surprise visit to Bagram air base and announced that he intended to draw down forces in America’s longest war and had resumed peace negotiations with the Taliban after he had scuttled them in September.

Trump rallied about 1,500 uniformed military personnel packed into a hangar at Bagram, many of them cheering at the presence of the commander in chief, and was joined onstage by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who did not hold back in his praise.

“President Trump, people talked a lot about bin Laden, but what you did to eliminate al-Baghdadi — who was an organizer and not a talker — is a much greater accomplishment. Congratulations,” Ghani said, referring to the killings of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 and of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi earlier this month.

Trump has succeeded in drawing plaudits from other validators as well. Last Wednesday, during a day of blockbuster hearings in Congress — including U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s testimony implicating Trump in a quid pro quo with Ukraine — the president was in Austin visiting a factory where Apple’s Mac Pro desktop computers are manufactured.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook led Trump on the tour and credited the president with helping revive American manufacturing. When Trump asked, “What would you say about our economy compared to everybody else?” Cook replied, “I think we have the strongest economy in the world right now.”

Trump drew some criticism for the visit: He took credit for opening the factory when in fact Apple computers have been assembled there since 2013, three years before Trump’s election.

Regardless, the images of Trump outside of Washington, walking a factory floor and showcasing a tech product, delivered the intended message, in the estimation of Republican public relations professionals.

“This is the right strategy for the president: Show the American people that he is focused on doing his job while Washington Democrats chase the great white whale of impeachment,” said Michael Steel, a former senior aide to former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Trump likes to brag about how much he is getting done. “We’re doing things that no president has ever done before, and you’ve got to be very, very happy,” he told supporters at the Sunrise rally.

But other than the strong economy and the successful Baghdadi raid, Trump has had few tangible achievements in recent months. His legislative agenda has all but stalled since Democrats took control of the House at the beginning of the year, and the trade agreement his administration negotiated with Canada and Mexico hangs in the balance as it awaits congressional approval.

“There’s a huge difference between photo ops that are designed to give people the impression that work is getting done and really doing the work and actually demonstrating results,” said Don Baer, a former Clinton White House adviser. “The Trump White House is going to have to figure out how it begins to put real results on the table for the public in terms of things it’s doing instead of just telling people that things are getting done.”

Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser who has been recording a pro-Trump radio show and podcast, “War Room: Impeachment,” said it is critical that the president show voters that he is focused on doing his job — especially as his reelection campaign intensifies.

“President Trump is a born leader, so these events come naturally for him, and looking to 2020, can anyone really imagine Elizabeth Warren opening an Apple factory, Bernie Sanders greeting troops overseas, or Joe Biden negotiating with foreign leaders without Hunter there cutting side deals?” Miller said, taking shots at three of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, including a reference to Biden’s son, that echo the message of the president’s campaign toward Trump’s potential 2020 rivals. Hunter Biden has been criticized for his foreign business dealings but has denied wrongdoing.

Lacking a bevy of big achievements of late, Trump has striven to make a show of whatever he can. On Monday, he invited journalists into the Oval Office to observe him signing the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act.

The law revises criminal penalties for creating or distributing videos or images depicting animal torture. The bill did not require much of a lift — it passed the House by voice vote and the Senate by unanimous consent — but the president celebrated its passage nonetheless.

“This is something that should’ve happened a long time ago and it didn’t,” Trump said. “I ask the same question I asked for another bill that we just signed: Why hasn’t this happened a long time ago? And I give you the same answer: because Trump wasn’t president.”