What President Trump did for his summer vacation: tweet, campaign, confer with supporters at his Bedminster golf club, tout a new Space Force, threaten government shutdowns — and hunker down for a challenging fall.
Trump faces a two-front war that could determine the fate of his presidency. Democrats are trying to take control of Congress in the midterm elections this November. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation proceeds apace, with the president’s former campaign chairman already in the dock.
It’s a combination that could ultimately remove Trump from office under the right set of circumstances, even if most Democrats are swearing off impeachment talk for now. “The president knows he needs to fight and I can tell you he is ready,” said a source close to the White House.
Trump has already aimed tweets at both targets, labeling the Mueller probe a “witch hunt” perpetrated by a team of “17 Angry Democrats,” even as administration officials emphasize the ongoing threat of Russian electoral interference and news reports indicate the special counsel’s office is looking closely at presidential social media activity as part of its work.
The president also took a big risk by campaigning for Republican Troy Balderson in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District special election despite the possibility it would rile up suburban anti-Trump sentiment as much as the base.
Publicly, at least, Trump doesn’t concede that he is living on the edge by stumping in competitive districts. “As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason), they will win!” Trump tweeted last week, later adding, “If I find the time, in between China, Iran, the Economy and much more, which I must, we will have a giant Red Wave!”
“A lot of people have underestimated Trump’s political appeal since he entered the 2016 campaign and he has repeatedly showed his ability to mobilize his party’s base,” said Christian Ferry, the strategist who managed Lindsey Graham’s presidential campaign. “However, there is no doubting Democratic enthusiasm this cycle and the fall elections are more likely to resemble the special elections where Republicans have consistently under-performed than the primaries where Trump has had a huge positive impact for his endorsed candidates.”
“There is no one who energizes the Republican base like Donald Trump. He is literally the greatest show on the campaign trail,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “And if Republicans are going to hold the House and make gains in the Senate in 2018, Trump will literally need to pull a rabbit out of a hat.”
The GOP has poured vast amounts of money to hold onto once-safe House seats by narrow margins, losing one in Pennsylvania but keeping eight others. They have also deployed the president and Vice President Mike Pence.
“You were there for me in 2016 when we won a great victory in the Buckeye State,” Trump said in one Republican National Committee robocall. “Tuesday is election day and I need you to vote for my friend, Troy Balderson, to keep our great agenda going.”
“If the recent slew of House special elections has taught Republicans anything, it is that they need to find a way to match the Democrats’ voter intensity,” O’Connell said. “For Democrats, 2018 is personal and as such many Republicans are facing gale-force headwinds, particularly in the House.”
Trump will be able to help in some places, but not everywhere. “President Trump will be most effective at boosting rural voters, male and senior turnout in endangered House districts and historically red Senate races,” O’Connell added. “Suburban House Republicans and some GOP Senate candidates may choose to hold Trump at arm’s length and call in less divisive allies, but running away from the president entirely is a fool’s errand.”
While Trump is trying to rally the GOP troops against the Democrats, he is also working to turn them against Mueller. “Put maximum pressure on him to wrap things up,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “Mueller seems to be getting into some far-flung avenues of investigation that have nothing to do with the original purpose of the probe.”
That may be easier said than done. But Trump and his congressional allies have had some impact driving up Mueller’s negatives. “I must say I think that they have succeeded beyond their dreams in discrediting Mueller,” David Gergen, a former adviser to four presidents, told CNN. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why they want to keep plowing down this path. It’s not pretty, but it’s working to some degree in the sense that a lot of Republicans have turned against Mueller now.”
In the meantime, Trump has to try to hold off the 17 “angry Democrats” he claims are working for Mueller — and the millions of them getting ready to vote Republicans out of office in response to his presidency in November.