WASHINGTON — President Trump’s failure to make good on his signature promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is the most crushing political defeat of his early days in the White House.
But it’s hardly the only one.
Trump — who sold himself as a winner who could turn around a country that “doesn’t win anymore” — has endured a litany of missteps, controversies, resignations, and investigations, all of which have dented his “I alone can fix it” vow to remake government with businesslike efficiency.
A month shy of the 100-day mark that presidents use to gauge success, Trump’s largely self-inflicted setbacks are evidence of a novice politician, often uninterested in the inner workings of government, who is struggling to wield his constitutional authority or fully understand the limits of his office.
“No administration has ever been off to a worse 100-day start,” said Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist who served as a counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
As Trump seeks to recover, the president’s difficulties in governing effectively — building coalitions, anticipating roadblocks, neutralizing opponents, and seeing around the corner — pose a far greater threat to his coming initiatives on a tax code overhaul and infrastructure than any obstruction Democrats could come up with.
Schmidt said the White House would have to be “delusional” not to recognize the depths of the challenges for the new president. The question for Trump, he added, is: “Does he learn lessons about Washington dealmaking from this debacle?”
The answer to that question is not yet clear.
Since Inauguration Day, Trump has fired his national security adviser for lying, watched as courts twice blocked his travel bans on some majority-Muslim countries, and fumed as the FBI announced that it was investigating his associates for any ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
On his watch, the military conducted a botched raid in Yemen — which he approved over dinner days into his presidency — and the US military is investigating reports that perhaps as many as 200 civilians have been killed in recent airstrikes in Mosul, Iraq. Mexico’s president angrily canceled a White House visit amid a feud over Trump’s plan for a border wall. The president and his staff have uttered a long list of falsehoods, including an unfounded charge that President Obama tapped his phones, that have entangled them in days of controversy.
Trump’s approval ratings — never high to begin with — have sagged to the high 30s, the lowest ever recorded at this point in a presidency.
White House officials say the president has had a number of successes, too. Sean Spicer, the press secretary, pointed to the nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the president’s well-received address to a joint session of Congress, and the many executive orders the president has issued.
“How many people have done this much in 60 days?” Spicer said. “There’s a lot of points on the board.”
Still, the president’s allies acknowledge that he has been hampered by a lack of disciplined planning and effective execution, often because the administration is furiously reacting to outside events or to one of Trump’s own unexpected Twitter posts.
Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and a staunch supporter of Trump in the presidential campaign, said the Republicans’ decision to abandon the health care bill Friday should persuade the president not to rely on Speaker Paul D. Ryan or other party allies to carry out his agenda.
“He cannot delegate. The world he wants is so dramatically different from anything that they’ve experienced,” Gingrich said.
He described Trump as “so angry” at Republican lawmakers for their failure on the health care bill.
“He’s angry at the fact that they spent several weeks going down a dead end where he was assured they had the votes,” Gingrich said.
During a meeting with Trump at the White House on Friday, Ryan told the president that he was sorry the votes were not there. Trump bluntly told Ryan that many people had said he should have gone against the speaker’s advice and pursued a tax code overhaul first, a refrain the president has returned to frequently.
But Gingrich rejected the idea that Trump’s presidency would be hobbled by the health care debacle or any of the other setbacks. He predicted that the president would win confirmation of Gorsuch, and noted that even as the health care bill failed, Trump on Friday reversed Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a project that is popular among Trump’s supporters.
“He was the president this morning. He will be the president tomorrow. He has all the advantages that that implies,” Gingrich said. “He’s having a better presidency than anybody in the Washington media thinks.”
The challenge for Trump is clear: how to move past the daily turmoil and infighting inside the West Wing and prove that he can use his background as a businessman to advance the policies that he promised as a candidate.
To win an overhaul of the nation’s tax code and a $1 trillion investment in public infrastructure, Trump will need to find a way to build winning coalitions in the House and the Senate by corralling the often-warring factions in the Republican Party. That may be even more difficult on a tax overhaul than it was on health care, given the moneyed interests watching every proposed change. On some bipartisan goals, the president will have to seize the chance to pick up some Democratic votes as well.
To succeed in his use of executive power, the president will need to be more deft in drafting orders that will not be challenged in court. Obama faced similar problems as he increasingly used his executive authority to get around a recalcitrant Republican Congress.
To avoid being trapped in endless investigations, Trump will have to tone down his war of words with intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Investigations can drain the political life from a presidency, as Ronald Reagan found during the Iran-Contra scandal and Bill Clinton learned during the Monica Lewinsky investigations.
And if Trump wants to repair his personal credibility, which has been damaged in part by the many falsehoods he has articulated, he might have to curtail his use of Twitter.