Top aides to President Donald Trump are acknowledging that the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election are overwhelming his legislative agenda as former FBI Director James Comey is set to appear at blockbuster Senate hearing later this week.
More than four months into Trump’s presidency — and despite total GOP control of Washington — Trump has achieved very little on Capitol Hill, in part because the Russia scandal leaves little room for anything else. Republicans now face the real prospect of going into the 2018 midterms with little to show voters, despite huge promises by Trump.
Obamacare is still the law of the land, funding for a border wall with Mexico is bogged down in partisan fighting, Trump’s budget proposal was dead on arrival, and the White House is way behind schedule on sending executive-branch nominees to the Senate for consideration.
With the Comey hearing looming on Thursday, Trump unveiled a plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system on Monday. On Tuesday, he’s set to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to discuss the state of play inside Congress. Senate Republicans will also hold a key meeting on whether they can move on an Obamacare repeal bill.
But even White House officials are admitting Russia is a serious distraction, though they blame “media bias” for much of the problem. Trump has dismissed the investigations as a “witch hunt.”
“There’s no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda, detracts from what we’re trying to deliver for the American people,” said Marc Short, Trump’s director of legislative affairs, in a briefing with reporters on Monday night.
Short also warned that Trump will play hardball with Democrats and GOP moderates on his spending priorities come the fall, when government funding runs out, even if that provokes a shutdown.
“Look, I don’t think that anybody is in favor of a government shutdown. I think that what the president is expressing is the frustration that a lot of Americans felt, and there are certain priorities that he campaigned on, the American people want,” Short said. “And so you will see him very engaged this fall and continuing to push for funding for our border security as well as rebuilding the military.”
He added: “And I think that he views it as all options for leverage are available, but that doesn’t mean that’s something he wishes for or that it’s great. We all believe that a government shutdown is not ideal.”
It’s an interesting play — Trump triangulating against his own majority in Congress. It shows, however, how frustrated White House officials are by the lack of progress on their own agenda.
Trump had signaled his openness to a shutdown in early May, writing on Twitter: “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
It remains unclear, though, if shutdown saber-rattling will be enough to jolt Congress. Both chambers are increasingly distracted by investigations into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Funding for government agencies runs out on Sept. 30. Ryan and other top House GOP leaders have already warned that they are “four months behind” in drafting a 2018 budget because of the internal fight in that chamber over Obamacare repeal and they will need short-term funding bills to avoid a shutdown come October.
The House Budget Committee is expected to unveil a budget plan in the next few weeks, although they are huge splits inside the GOP over those who want to boost Pentagon funding and spending hardliners who want to cut government. And that doesn’t even begin to address the partisan fight with Democrats.
Meanwhile, the White House wants health care passed by the end of the summer and a tax reform bill introduced after Labor Day, Short said. There is no timeline as yet for infrastructure, he added, but the White House would like to have a plan out this calendar year.
Another fight going on inside the White House and within the GOP on Capitol Hill is over the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is among those calling for a “clean” bill to raise the debt ceiling, which is expected to be hit early this fall. Yet Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Budget and Management, other administration officials and some hard line conservative Republicans in Congress want to see fiscal reforms tied to the debt ceiling.
Short admitted there is a debate going on within the administration over that issue, and he said Trump had not taken a position.
“What I think he will understand from both of them is the need to raise the debt ceiling before Congress adjourns this summer, and that is the deadline and the timeline we have given to Congress,” Short said.
Failure to raise the debt ceiling, or a prolonged fight over the issue, like what occurred in 2011, could rattle Wall Street and the credit markets, and potentially hurt the U.S. economy.
But the neatly laid out agenda that the White House presented has a habit of running up against Trump’s own habit of seizing the message: Just as he did Monday morning by kicking off a planned week focused on infrastructure with a series of inflammatory tweets about his controversial travel ban.
“The American people are anxious to see progress in this town,” Short said Monday night when pressed about Trump’s sometimes divergent messaging strategies. “He may not have conventional style in doing that, but many of his efforts are extremely helpful to, I think, getting our legislation accomplished.”