President Donald Trump wants more focus on his accomplishments — but without major legislative victories, his marketing campaign hasn’t gotten much traction.
Despite his pronouncement Monday that his presidency has been one of the most productive so far, his three major legislative pushes — on health care, taxes and infrastructure — all remain in the early stages nearly half a year into his presidency. His promised border wall has not been funded, his travel ban was blocked by the courts and his first budget proposal was deemed dead on arrival even by allies.
Trump, one administration official said, has smarted over coverage of the ongoing Russia probes and frequently complains that his administration doesn’t get enough positive attention. He sometimes flashes annoyance that health care legislation is taking too long and "wants wins all the time," the official said.
"They’re in a tough spot because no matter how well they plan the roll-out of a new policy, it gets overshadowed by either the special counsel or by the Senate or House intelligence committee work,” said Matt Schlapp, a conservative activist close to the West Wing. "In the short term, it’s going to dominate. Over the medium and long term, it becomes a third-tier story unless there is some kind of new development.”
"He truly feels like everything good the administration is doing is just getting ignored," the official said.
The effort has an internal aspect too. The White House has been spending more time trying to focus staff on weekly agenda items, two administration officials said. Senior officials have tried to cheer up younger aides by reminding them that "voters aren’t going to make their choices based on some hard-to-understand, he-said, she-said accusation," one said, adding that the White House believes voters will stand by them if the economy remains strong.
Trump invited his cabinet secretaries at their first gathering on Monday to praise the administration’s work. The moment struck many as bizarre. Among others heaping praise on a smiling president, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who has been battling rumors that his job is in jeopardy for months, told Trump it is a “blessing” to serve him.
"I have never heard anything like it. It’s just unbelievable. I don’t even know how to react to it. I’ve never heard any staff say that ever in any context," said one long-time GOP consultant. The gathering prompted Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, to parody it with his own staff, who praised his TV appearances and post-gym hair.
Trump also declared on Monday that he’d “passed more legislation” than any predecessor besides Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That was inaccurate – Harry Truman passed 55 bills in his first 100 days, while Trump had signed 48 on his 142nd day. Many of those have been designating buildings or other less noticeable actions.
Trump has also taken to dispatching cabinet-level officials such as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to the White House press room to brief reporters on the administration’s work, though the proposals they describe can seem like they’re not yet ready for prime-time.
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on Monday, touting the administration’s work on apprenticeship, pointed to no concrete steps to promote the programs besides meeting with chief executives. He repeatedly praised the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, for taking on the issue. He told reporters twice to “stay tuned” for more detail on efforts to promote apprenticeships and promised an announcement on Wednesday. He dodged questions about Trump’s budget proposal, which would trim funding for job training programs.
White House officials said more details would come later about partnerships with private businesses to encourage apprenticeships.
The Acosta appearance had echoes of an appearance in late April by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and economic adviser Gary Cohn to present the president’s tax reform blueprint. The plan they unveiled was a one-page bullet-point list, and the officials could not answer detailed questions about Trump’s vision for tax reform.
“We will be back to you with very firm details,” Cohn said at one point, though the promised specifics have yet to emerge a month and a half later. Trump has suggested that tax reform is advancing in Congress, but no bill has been introduced.
Trump demanded infrastructure and tax plans be presented publicly before they were ready, one administration official said.
And Trump’s Twitter blasts at everyone from his former FBI director to the mayor of London, his allies concede, have hurt his legislative agenda.
“A consistent economic message with great repetition would do this administration a lot of good,” said Josh Holmes, a top adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who himself has criticized Trump’s Twitter habit. Holmes said Trump could do that with stadium rallies, which have also been pushed by administration aides and advisers. But Trump is not always the most willing traveler.
Trump will travel to Wisconsin on Tuesday to tout his jobs agenda, as the White House once again seeks to drive the week’s narrative. But Tuesday already seems destined to be dominated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he will be pressed on questions related to the Russia probe and the firing of ex-FBI chief James Comey.
And Monday was dented by an appellate court ruling that once again went against his travel ban.
The White House likely hopes to avoid a redux of last week, which was billed as “infrastructure week” but consumed by Russia and Comey news. Trump himself dove into the fray on Twitter and at a press conference.
The lack of focus on infrastructure became something of a joke in political and business circles. Lloyd Blankfein, the Goldman Sachs CEO, posted on Twitter Friday: “Just landed from China, trying to catch up…. How did ‘infrastructure week’ go?"