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A Presidency Stalled And Sputtering

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with the Fraternal Order of Police on March 28, 2017, at the White House.
Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with the Fraternal Order of Police on March 28, 2017, at the White House.

Since the Republican health care bill collapsed a little more than a week ago, President Trump's White House has struggled with a path forward. Trump is dealing with finger-pointing and infighting that threatens to derail his agenda, as well as nagging Russia investigations on Capitol Hill that are raising more questions than answers about his team.

And Trump has a real perception problem with the American public — he has the lowest approval rating at this point of any president in more than half a century.

This past week didn't help matters. Let's recap as well as look ahead:

1. They will never take away our freedom (caucus): There was continued GOP infighting over health care, including Trump all but declaring war on the House Freedom Caucus. Members of the Freedom Caucus weren't taking it lying down:

2. GOP in a box: Trump flirted with potentially working with Democrats ("Hello, Chuck"), only to have that undermined by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

"What I worry about," Ryan told CBS, "is if we don't do this, then he'll just go work with Democrats."

Was that Ryan really just talking to the Freedom Caucus?

Either way, Republicans are in a very tight corner – if you aren't going to work with Democrats and you're going to go to war with a group that, if it sticks together, can block anything you want to do, nothing will get done.

Something has to give.

Ryan's posture didn't sit well with one Republican senator:

3. Executive actions don't equal legislation: That lack of an ability to get much done on Capitol Hill has hobbled Trump's agenda. During the campaign, Trump made big, bold promises.

So far, he has tried to follow through on them with big, bold... executive orders. (He's on pace for 100 or more this year, which would be a higher rate than any president back to Truman.) This week, Trump sought to curtail President Obama's environmental rules and appeared to soften his harsh stance on NAFTA espoused during last year's campaign.

But here's a reality check on executive orders: they're usually something presidents resort to when they can't get legislation through. (See: Obama, Barack and immigration.) They're only so useful. They have their limits, which is why presidents still need Congress.

4. High Nunes and a Burr in the saddle: The revelation that Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, got his information on the White House grounds about communications of Trump transition officials that were incidentally scooped up by lawful U.S. surveillance, undermined the bipartisanship of the committee.

It has left the panel far less relevant, if at all anymore, especially with the buddy show put on by the heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark Warner, D-Va.

"I have confidence in Richard Burr," Warner said in response to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, who asked Burr if he could swear with his hand over his heart that he could conduct an impartial investigation even though he was a Trump supporter during the campaign.

What a difference from the House committee, where the ranking Democratic member, Adam Schiff, has called on Nunes to step aside from leading the Russia investigation. House Speaker Paul Ryan, however, has said he has no problem with Nunes, who was a Trump transition official, continuing as chairman.

The Senate committee held a rare public hearing this week and is going to be interviewing Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and adviser. Time TBD. He came forward voluntarily after it was revealed he, too, had met with the Russian ambassador and the head of a Russian bank that is dealing with sanctions after Russia's annexation of Crimea.

5. Commander in tweet: Nunes wasn't the only Russia complication for the White House. By the end of the week, former national security adviser Michael Flynn was asking for immunity from the FBI and congressional committees. (So far, no takers.)

Amazingly, the president (the president!) was tweeting support for Flynn, saying he should seek immunity because this is a "witch hunt."

As NPR's Carrie Johnson has reported, Trump continues to violate lawyers' first rule for clients: keep your mouth shut.

6. Processed responses: White House press secretary Sean Spicer introduced a new talking point for diverting questions about the Russia investigations — criticizing the questions as "process," not "substance."

Questions like, who signed in Nunes onto the White House grounds, for example, were dismissed. On Wednesday, Spicer said he would look into it and other "process" questions.

But, by Thursday, he was firing back with this: "No, no, no — no, don't — please don't put words in my mouth. I never said I would provide you answers. I said we would look into it."

That is quite the distinction.

But the fact is this — Burr said the Russia investigation is one of the biggest he's seen since coming to Washington. That's 25 years. The investigation will take months, if not longer, which means the White House and the president will continue to be dogged by Russia questions, process or not, for quite some time.

7. Shake it up: Internally at the White House, there was a big departure — Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh. Walsh, who came from the Republican National Committee, was a key ally of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

"Katie is, No. 1, not getting fired," a White House adviser told a small group of reporters, per Time.

The White House is spinning this as Walsh departing to launch a pro-Trump group America First Policies, because, in part, it didn't have "air cover" when it came to the health care effort.

But Axios reported that Walsh had become "fed up with the internal 'Game of Thrones,'" and was "treated with suspicion by some prominent West Wing colleagues."

It left some wondering about Priebus' fate (and that of those aligned with him). "Reince is not next," one senior White House official told CNN. When asked at Thursday's briefing if Walsh's departure could mean others will be let go too, Spicer's curt response before turning to another reporter: "No."

Still, any time a key member of the staff exits, it raises questions about the cohesiveness of the president's team and the confidence he has in them.

8. Going "nuclear"? The Senate appears to be on a collision course over the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. If Democrats stand in the way, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is threatening to go "nuclear" and eliminate the rule requiring 60 votes to advance a nominee.

That would still need a vote, and there are a couple of Republicans who have indicated in the past an unwillingness to go along with that. But the odds are, if McConnell wants to do it, he'll find the votes.

If it happens, it could mean a whole new world for the kinds of nominees to the highest court in the land, which had been one of the last remaining trusted institutions in the country, but has seen declines in recent years, following Bush v. Gore and the decision regarding key provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

9. State of disapproval: Trump is stuck. His approval ratings are the worst for any modern president at the same point in a first term. His approval rating has fluctuated between the mid-to-high 30s to 40 percent. Compare that to where other presidents were on April 1 of their first year in office, and he's far below where any of them were.

In fact, if you look back as far as John F. Kennedy and compare the first six months of presidencies, you can see how low Trump is comparatively with this helpful chart from Charles Franklin, who runs the respected Marquette University Law School poll:

Those are brutal numbers. But then again, Trump was the most disliked presidential candidate since polling began... and he still won.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.