WASHINGTON >> Health care is complicated. China can be a useful ally. NATO isn’t obsolete. Being president is hard.
Over the course of his 100 days in office, President Donald Trump has been startlingly candid about his public education in the ways of Washington and the world.
He’s been blocked by the courts and befuddled by a divided Republican Party that’s running Congress, and his first months on the job have left the long-time reality-TV and real estate tycoon struggling for major governing victories and searching for a new approach to many of his campaign promises.
His “America first” campaign rhetoric has bumped up against the challenges of conflict overseas. His ambitious declarations on health care and immigration have run into the limits of Congress and the courts.
A president who prides himself on his ideological flexibility has struggled to manage a novice political team, split between moderate and conservative advisers, and he’s found himself reaching out to the friends and business associates from the world he left behind.
On foreign policy, Trump has been persuaded by foreign leaders and has leaned heavily on a national security team with more governing experience than his political advisers. He’s looked for lessons in his biggest victory: putting a conservative judge, Neil Gorsuch, on the Supreme Court.
“I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility. And the human responsibility,” Trump said in an Associated Press interview, assessing the difficulty of the presidency.
“This is tougher than what he thought,” said Trump friend and business partner Phil Ruffin, who has visited the president twice since he took office Jan. 20. “In business, you make a decision and it happens. In government, it’s not like that.”
Just days into Trump’s presidency, the courts rejected his first travel ban. Since then, they’ve pushed back on his rewritten travel ban and his attempt to cut federal money for cities that harbor people who are in the United States illegally. But Trump’s roughest lesson has come from Congress, which has balked at his attempt to repeal the Obama-era health law his party campaigned against for years.
During the campaign, Trump said the Affordable Care Act would be gone on his first day in the White House. In the weeks after his inauguration, the realities set it.
By February, he told a group of governors that “it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” adding: “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
For Trump, the health care battle was a rude introduction to the complicated internal politics in the Republican-run House, which includes hard-liners in the Freedom Caucus and moderates in the Tuesday Group. When the White House made concessions to conservatives, it pushed some moderates away, and vice versa.
Unable to cut a deal in late March, House Republicans pulled the health bill from consideration. Trump lashed out at Freedom Caucus leaders on Twitter and indicated he would seek retribution come campaign season.
Trump’s team tried to pick up the pieces but hasn’t gotten there yet. A renewed burst of momentum this past week, buoyed by hopes the House would vote before Saturday, Trump’s 100th day, petered out. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he would not be rushed by the president’s deadline.
The contrast between the scuttled first attempt on health care and the relative smooth sailing of Gorsuch was a learning experience. The takeaway: working behind the scenes with outside groups, which lined up solidly behind Gorsuch, and lawmakers can pay dividends.
“Outreach to partner organizations starting sooner is helpful and I think that you will see that,” said Marc Short, the White House legislative director. “Probably we were a little bit surprised when we engaged some of the conservative groups on health care that they felt they’d been left out of the conversation from the Hill.”
None of Trump’s top advisers had deep experience in legislating. Now they’ve begun to compensate with outreach. The White House has hosted 230 members of Congress, and there have been 10 bowling sessions in the Executive Mansion’s basement. But no amount of bowling can overcome the division in the Republican Party.
The president has seemed taken aback.
In the AP interview, Trump said there was “a pretty vast area” between the approach by the most conservative members of his party and those who are more moderate.
To bridge the divides, Trump’s advisers have worked to moderate between the factions as his team tries to revive the health bill. The White House is taking a similar approach on the president’s tax plan.
Restless in Washington, Trump is working at “breakneck speed,” chief of staff Reince Priebus told reporters. Sometimes so quickly that his own advisers can’t keep up.
The president’s declaration last week that his team would release a tax proposal before the 100 day mark startled some in the White House, who scrambled to put together the one-page outline that was released Wednesday.
The proposal lacks the details about making taxes simpler and more efficient in ways that don’t add to the federal government’s mounting debt. Those are core Republican principles that would require lawmakers to eliminate or reduce precious tax breaks enjoyed by millions of people.
Trump did meet his goal of starting work on the plan in his first 100 days, but another tough challenge awaits on Capitol Hill as he still contends with health care.
Trump’s frustration with a lack of progress has sometimes erupted in anger — and sometimes in the direction of his political advisers. He’s frequently blamed his team for being unable to quash negative stories. He was particularly incensed by the steady drip of revelations about his campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped aside from Russia investigations because of his own undisclosed contacts with a Russian ambassador, Trump unleashed on his top advisers in an Oval Office meeting. Sessions’ decision overshadowed Trump’s well-received first address to Congress days earlier; it was a speech the White House hoped would give the president a burst of momentum.
But ultimately it was Trump himself who created the biggest distraction. The morning after his Oval Office row with his staff, he tweeted a series of inflammatory accusations about his predecessor wiretapping Trump’s New York skyscraper.
One of the lowest moments of Trump’s young administration was the forced resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who misled the White House about his Russia ties. Flynn’s departure cleared the way for a well-received overhaul of the National Security Council.
Trump has relied heavily on Flynn’s replacement, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who has formed an alliance of experience with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The president has largely heeded their advice on major foreign policy decisions and given the Pentagon vast control over military operations around the world.
It’s been Trump’s evolution on foreign affairs that’s perhaps been clearest to track.
Confronted with photos of injured children, victims of a chemical attack in Syria, Trump quickly pivoted from what he billed as an “America first” policy during the campaign in favor of intervention.
After listening to European leaders make the case for NATO, he stopped saying it was obsolete.
And after pleas from business executives and warnings of economic turmoil from foreign leaders, Trump just this week abruptly abandoned plans to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Each shift has different forces behind it.
On Syria, Priebus said he said sees a “Trump Doctrine” coming into focus: a combination of putting America first but not sitting around while world injustices, such as the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, go unanswered.
In some cases, Trump has acknowledged he was ill-informed during his campaign. As a candidate, he dismissed the NATO alliance without knowing much about it, he told AP last week. “Now I know a lot.”
He had pledged to label China a currency manipulator, part of his tough-on-China populist rhetoric. But after a particularly warm visit from President Xi Jinping, Trump acknowledged the downside to alienating a power that could be a useful partner in curbing North Korea’s nuclear program.
“The bigger picture, bigger than even currency manipulation, if he’s helping us with North Korea,” he said. “What am I going to do, say, ‘By the way, would you help us with North Korea? And also, you’re a currency manipulator.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
Trump has proved to be open to persuasion, particularly from world leaders and outside forces. When news spread Thursday that Trump was considering triggering the U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, the leaders of Mexico and Canada launched a diplomatic full-court press to persuade Trump to rethink the plan. It took only a matter of hours before the president relented.