The shitstorm of scandals that's hammered Donald Trump and his administration for the last two weeks, much of it of the president's own slapdash creation, has consumed the political class. There's open talk of impeachment in some quarters, and Trump himself seems even more aggrieved than usual. But the flurry of leaks and speculation about what will happen next is obscuring the fact that not much is really happening on Capitol Hill.
The president has not issued any substantive executive actions since two days after he unexpectedly sacked FBI director James Comey. Congress has tackled only a few minor, feel-good pieces of legislation, mostly leaving big-ticket items to languish this week.
A good chunk of this slump was inevitable given how slowly things can move in Washington, DC. But the White House drama doesn't help, and though Trump could get things back on track next week, if he doesn't change things soon the slowdown could last a long, long time.
May started out pretty swell for Trump, with the House passing its much-hyped healthcare bill. In the wake of that win and the rush of executive actions leading up to the president's 100-day milestone, a slackening off was likely inevitable. Executive action experts Joshua Kennedy and Mark Rozell both told me that this is usually the time when a new president takes a beat to game-plan new issues. Executive powers expert Andy Rudalevige suspects that would mean fleshing out a tax reform strategy and 2018 budget proposal, and maybe reviewing how to act on the findings of the many reports looking into a variety of issues Trump has ordered.
According to the University of Virginia's Miller Center's presidential studies director Barbara A. Perry, the administration also likely planned to use a couple of weeks of down time to prep Trump for his first trip abroad, which starts Friday. It would have been, as she phrased it, "a graduate seminar for Donald Trump in foreign affairs, which he no doubly desperately needed."
As for Congress, the Republicans who run both chambers are running out of easy wins.
A group of 13 Republican senators has broken off to overhaul the House's healthcare bill—which the House may have to vote again on depending on what the Congressional Budget Office says. Republicans on other committees are trying to work on a tax-reform package despite the distractions swirling around them. On top of that, the window for using the Congressional Review Act, the tool Republicans have used out to peel back late Obama-era regulations through simple majority votes, closed earlier this month.
Part of the problem is that Trump's White House doesn't have much experience rolling out an agenda and shepherding it through Congress. That's only been compounded by the mess made when Trump fired Comey.
"He just created more chaos that took his eye off the ball in legislative affairs," said Perry. Later in our conversation, she added: "You don't want this man to have a lot of time on his hands."
The experts I spoke to said the White House will probably be preoccupied or even paralyzed for some time by events like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's appointment of a special counsel after giving the Trump team only an hour's notice. "There may not be much appetite or urgency for [new] executive action as a result of all of the political problems in the White House," said Kennedy.
Legislators only have so many hours in their days. Lately they've been mobbed by reporters and forced to respond to scandals. Hearings and testimony will likely sap even more of Congress's time, said Perry. In the longer term, all this intrigue will likely damage Trump's already-low approval ratings. Congressional Republicans are reportedly growing increasingly frustrated with Trump's erratic handling of situations, which might make it harder for the administration to rally the GOP rank and file moving forward.
"The Republicans have lots of ideas" for what to do moving forward, said Congress watcher John Johannes. "But [they] lack the presidential leadership and legislative energy they need from the White House."
Some Republicans are clearly upset about the administration's shortcomings. "We are in a holding pattern," one congressional aide told CNN this week. "They blocked any momentum Republicans had built."
Given how little time congressional Republicans have to focus on big agenda items before they face a series of vital but contentious spending bills coming up this fall, and considering how far behind they are on issues like tax or healthcare reform, scandal-based delays could kill any hope of real legislative productivity this year.
Trump could still pull out of this tailspin. The appointment of a special counsel in the Russia investigation could alleviate pressures on Congress to ramp up its own investigations. The White House could simply decline to comment on Comey's firing or Russia and say that they eagerly await the results of the investigation, which they are certain will find no wrongdoing. Things could settle down, in other words.
This breathing room could allow the administration to refocus and maybe finally announce the $1 trillion infrastructure plan Trump's teased since the campaign. And, Perry pointed out, a foreign trip like the one Trump is now heading out on "is often the refuge of struggling presidents, who go abroad and look statesmanlike."
But looking statesmanlike has been difficult at times for Trump, who once reassured a debate crowd about his penis size. And if the White House continues to leak and Trump continues to denounce his enemies, these distractions could suck the air out of DC indefinitely—or at least the summer. According to Perry, Trump's scandals have opened the door to at the very least a low-grade fever in the body politic of the capital. "And you know what a low-grade fever is like," said Perry. "You just never feel great and you're never up to speed. It just saps your strength."
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