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A President in Isolation as Fallout Continues Over Charlottesville Remarks
The Presidency of the United States is a traditionally lonely job: almost all occupants of the office end their terms in some manner of isolation, whether from family, or close aides, or the public at large. But Donald J. Trump began his presidential term uniquely isolated: without any major allies in Congress or the media, fresh off of a campaign proud of its modest organization in which he was frequently critical of the Washington, D.C. political establishment and known to cater only to a small, but enthusiastic, base of supporters. Trump failed to win over the "establishment" upon entering office, resulting in the stalling of his agenda and a lack of any substantive legislative achievements almost seven months later. And now, after responding to violence in Charlottesville by blaming "both sides" at a press conference on Tuesday, Trump finds himself more isolated than ever from key constituencies:
- Republican lawmakers Tuesday's edition of Wake Up To Politics featured a roundup of quotes from top GOP members of Congress criticizing the President for his Charlottesville comments. Despite White House circulation of talking points to Republicans on the Hill ("The President was entirely correct -- both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately...), none of the recipients seem to be defending him. A number of cable news hosts (including Fox News' Shep Smith, MSNBC's Chuck Todd, and CNN's Wolf Blitzer) noted that they could not get a single GOP lawmaker to appear on their programs Wednesday, despite inviting dozens, in a rare show of camera-shyness for members of the United States Congress.
- According to USA TODAY, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was "livid" after the President's press conference, although his response in the following hours was noticeably muted. Trump spent much of last week attacking McConnell via Twitter last week, which is unlikely to help. "I think his ability to effectively govern is dwindling by the hour," a Republican leadership source told CNN on Tuesday, underlining how little Trump has accomplished without the Republican-controlled Congress fully behind him. Wednesday's event at Trump Tower was an opportunity for the President to turn the page, addressing an issue which could potentially unite Democrats and Republicans: infrastructure. Instead, of course, the President overshadowed his own team's message with his own self-destructive comments.
- Pressure is mounting on Republicans in Congress to respond to Trump with more than just tweets and statements. Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced a resolution "censuring and condemning" President Trump on Wednesday, urging their Republican colleagues to sign on. "Republicans, put your votes where your tweets are," the USA TODAY editorial board wrote, calling on lawmakers to "join together with Democrats to censure Trump."
- And, as usual, Trump isn't doing himself any favors. He took to Twitter on Thursday morning to antagonize two Republican senators. "Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists...and people like Ms. Heyer," the President said in a series of two tweets. "Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing.The people of South Carolina will remember!" Trump's missives were a response to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)'s statement on Charlottesville, which called the President's comments "a step backward."
- Trump then went after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), seemingly taking the extraordinary step of endorsing the incumbent senator's primary challenger: "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!"
- White House staff Trump is not only physically removed from his staff at the moment, while he vacations in Bedminster as they mostly remain in Washington, but rhetorically as well. Politico reported on Wednesday that many White House staffers are "wrestling" with how to respond to the presidential news conference, recognizing in private conversations "how terrible the day went." According to Bloomberg, officials are asking each other, essentially, "how much more can I take?" Reuters also reported that some aides are mulling resignation, including one official who told the outlet that "after [the press conference], it's clear that there is no way for anyone, even a Marine general, to restrain [Trump's] impulses or counter what he sees on TV and reads on the web."
- The Marine general in question, newly-minted Chief of Staff John Kelly, was visibly pained as he stood on the sidelines of the Trump Tower presser, and is now "deeply frustrated and dismayed just two weeks into his job," with the lack of discipline he was appointed to instill on full display, the Washington Post reported, citing interviews with 17(!) advisers in the Trump orbit.
- Focus is particularly intense on National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, who, like newly-minted Chief of Staff John Kelly, stood on the sidelines of Trump's press conference, visibly uncomfortable. Cohn was "disgusted" and "deeply upset" by the the remarks, according to the New York Times.
- Other high-ranking Jewish members of the Administration are also being closely watched. At a briefing on Wednesday, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin stopped short of criticizing Trump, but declared it "a dishonor to our country's veterans for the Nazis and the white supremacists to go unchallenged." Meanwhile, First Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, have been out of the public eye, as they vacation in Vermont.
- Business community After days of CEOs resigning from his American Manufacturing Council and Strategic and Policy Forum in protest, President Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he was terminating both groups. "Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both," he said. "Thank you all!"
- Trump's decision came after many members had already quit in response to his comments on Charlottesville, including the leaders of Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Intel, the AFL-CIO, Campbell Soup, among others. In fact, the New York Times and other outlets have reported that the Strategy and Policy Forum members had already decided to disband in an emergency call before Trump's tweet, and were just minutes away from releasing a statement condemning his comments. Business leaders are a key constituency whose support has long been coveted by Trump, who clearly enjoyed the visuals of his meetings with the groups.
- Former presidents Only five men truly know the isolation Trump is feeling, and none of them seem willing to defend him. In the days after the Charlottesville violence, former President Barack Obama set the record for most-liked tweet of all time, posting a quote from the late South African leader Nelson Mandela. The two living Republican former Presidents, George W. and George H.W. Bush, have also weighed in, releasing a statement on Wednesday declaring, "America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms."
- Military chiefs Trump's comments sparked backlash by five of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, National Guard, and Marine Corps. Each of the service chiefs posted to social media in the wake of the press conference, none rebuking the Commander-in-Chief by name but all pointedly condemning racism. "The Army doesn't tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley wrote. "It's against our Values and everything we've stood for since 1775." Added Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson on Facebook: "The shameful events in Charlottesville are unacceptable and must not be tolerated."
- Foreign leaders After the President's "both sides" comment, a rift has also opened between Trump and some allies on the world stage. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas tweeted on Wednesday that Trump's Charlottesville response was "obnoxious." British Prime Minister Theresa May also seemed to rebuke him, saying: “I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them. I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far-right views wherever we hear them.”
- United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also took to Twitter after the press conference, writing: "Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism & Islamophobia are poisoning our societies. We must stand up against them. Every time. Everywhere."
- The media Trump's initial comments were made in a press conference in which he seemed frustrated by reporters' questions, and they drew shocked reactions from many in the media. The Washington Post editorial board wrote, "The nation can only weep," in the hours after the conference. "My initial reaction was simply: he didn't just say that that, did he? Today? Again? Seriously?" NBC's Chuck Todd tweeted. CNN's Jake Tapper said on-air after the news conference: "Wow. That was something else."
- And days after retweeting an image of a train running over a CNN reporter (later deleted and called an accident), Trump shows no signs of stopping his long-running campaign against the media. He tweeted on Thursday morning: "The public is learning (even more so) how dishonest the Fake News is. They totally misrepresent what I say about hate, bigotry etc. Shame!"
- The public And polls continue to show Trump's approval ratings sliding, abandoned by all but his base. A Gallup poll released on Sunday showed the President with his lowest approval rating of the Administration, 34%, and highest disapproval rating, 61%. And pollsters are already testing Trump's Charlottesville response, with 52% of respondents to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll calling it "not strong enough." 27% said it was strong enough; 21% were unsure.
But faced with opposition from many corners, Trump shows no signs of changing track. CNN reported that the President is "plunging forward 'without regret' firmly believing the media and East Coast elites are unfairly hyperventilating about the Charlottesville remarks," describing the sense of a recent visitor to his Trump Tower penthouse. The piece adds that "the President's sons and those directly around him believe he is in the right"; according to Axios, one of those individuals is White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who is described as "proud" of Trump's response, which he positively saw as a "defining moment." Politico reports that Trump isn't looking back: "He still thinks he's right," an adviser told the outlet.
And if anyone was looking for proof of Trump's lack of regret, he plunged back into the controversy of Confederate statues — completely unprovoked — in a string of three tweets:
"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities,towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"
"The best people"
- American Prospect: "Steve Bannon, Unrepentant" President Trump's embattled Chief Strategist phoned a writer for the progressive American Prospect on Wednesday, offering his unvarnished opinions on...
- what he called the "economic war" with China ("One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path")
- his boss' North Korea strategy ("There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it ")
- his adversaries in the foreign policy establishment ("They're wetting themselves...We're still fighting")
- the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville ("a collection of clowns")
- and identity politics ("If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats ").
- Bannon was reportedly unaware that the writer would publish his thoughts; the author says that no declaration that they were off the record was ever made.
- New York Times: "Trump Lawyer Forwards Email Echoing Secessionist Rhetoric" The Times obtained an email forwarded by John Dowd, a member of the President's legal team, to more than two dozen individuals, including government officials and conservative writers, with the subject line, "The Information that Validates President Trump on Charlottesville." The email argued that Black Lives Matter "has been totally infiltrated by terrorist groups," and equates Confederate General Robert E. Lee with the first U.S president. "You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington," the email reads, "there literally is no difference between the two men."
The President's Schedule
For the second day in a row after his explosive press conference, President Trump spends his day at his property in Bedminster, New Jersey, entirely away from the press. At 1pm, he is scheduled to have lunch with Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL); at 3pm, he will sit down with Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon.