Mired in scandal, Trump governs like he’s president of the 35 percent

President Trump.
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
President Trump.

WASHINGTON — When President Trump traveled to Little Havana in Miami on Friday to announce restrictions on Cuba trade, he rolled back a recent thaw with the island nation that has been popular not just among Democrats but also within his own party.

When he yanked the United States from the Paris climate accord, he set aside broad support for the pact from within the GOP establishment.

On his trip to Europe last month, he declined to express support for the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, for decades the bipartisan bedrock strategy of America and its allies, to contain Russia (he later voiced approval). Even the frequency with which Trump offers unfiltered thoughts via Twitter is concerning to many Republicans.


But one audience is loving all these moves: The Trump base, the 35 to 40 percent of American voters who reliably tell pollsters they strongly support the embattled president — and show no signs of backing away.

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With his administration mired in investigations and controversy, distracted by scandal, and unable to lead policy debates, Trump is taking almost no steps to expand his support and broaden his leadership of the Republican Party.

Instead, he has retrenched in recent weeks, drawing from a positive political feedback loop he enjoys with the disenchanted voters who fueled his rise and election victory.

He’s lavishing his time and attention on shoring up those who already like him — and who, not incidentally, continue to instill a measure of fear among Republicans in Congress who might be tempted to bolt from Trump.

Even the president’s travels around the country since his election make it look like he’s back in the glory days of the 2016 Republican primary contest, wooing discontented conservatives in Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.


“This is an amazing community, the Cuban-American community — so much love,” the president said as he took the stage in Miami on Friday afternoon.

An audience member yelled: “We love you!”

“Thank you, darling,’’ Trump replied. “Oh, do I love you, too.”

But will this be enough to sustain a presidency over the long haul, not to mention put him in position to win reelection in 2020?

“He’d argue, as would his supporters, the reason why he did so well is because he’s authentic. For him to reverse course, it would make him a traditional politician, and nobody wants that,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster. “That said, it’s hard to govern at 40 percent.”


Trump did have an opportunity when he was first elected to forge ties with Democrats, given that many of his supporters, particularly in the industrial Midwest, had just voted Republican for the first time.

But that moment has evaporated, Luntz said, with few Democrats in Congress willing to get behind such a controversial president and many reporting that he’s done nothing to woo them.

Trump still has the ability to surprise. The administration offered an olive branch to the left Friday with the decision that Trump will not deport the so-called Dreamers, the young immigrant adults brought to this country as children whom he had pledged to kick out during his campaign.

But such a play to mainstream centrists of his own party or potential swing Democrats is rare.

“There are times you think: ‘Does he even want to run for reelection?’ ” said Peter Barca, a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly and a Democrat. “He doesn’t seem to like the job. He’s had such a confrontational attitude, and he just thinks his base wants him to be combative with everyone around him, whether it’s his staff or the intelligence community that works for him.”

Two-thirds of the president’s domestic travel for public events has been to states that he won, including all of his travel this month.

So far in June he’s been to Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida, and he plans to visit Iowa next week. He’s also held four campaign-style rallies since being president, all in states that voted for him. His few trips to blue states seem mostly happenstance, because they are home to government facilities Trump visited, such as Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.

While making appearances in states he won, Trump frequently talks about his success at the ballot box. That included a February visit to South Carolina, when he reminisced about the primary.

“This was going to be a place that was tough to win, and we won in a landslide,” Trump said during the unveiling of a Boeing aircraft in North Charleston, S.C. “This was a good one.”

Barack Obama, too, favored visits to states that supported him, and in his first six months in office he traveled mostly to states that he won, according to a tally kept by Mark Knoller, with CBS News.

Trump also has taken nine weekend jaunts to his private clubs in Florida and New Jersey while president, according to the CBS data.

Trump’s team offers a simple response to questions about his penchant for less popular stances like rolling back Cuba ties and withdrawing from the climate agreement: They represent campaign pledges being fulfilled, a narrative that Trump’s political team is eager to tout.

Trump’s chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon keeps a list of such pledges on a whiteboard in his office. Big ticket items that the base wants — such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and overhauling the tax code — have proved to be elusive, making smaller-bore policy changes all the more important to highlight.

“Last year, I promised to be a voice against repression in our region — remember, tremendous oppression — and a voice for the freedom of the Cuban people,’’ Trump told the cheering crowd in Miami. “And here I am like I promised.’’

The change in Cuba policy is an example of playing to a small but influential slice of the electorate.

In December 2014, Obama reestablished diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than five decades of isolation. That enabled airlines to open direct flights from the United States to Cuba and opened the door to less restricted travel.

Trump on Friday announced the reinstatement of some restrictions on Americans who want to travel to Cuba, in addition to a ban on doing business with companies controlled by the military government there, which in Cuba includes hotels and other parts of the tourist sector.

In October, two weeks before the general election, Trump received an endorsement from the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, a Florida-based group of Cuban exiles who were part of the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba.

And on Friday, in a nod to that group, the president made his announcement at the Manuel Artime Theater, a venue named after a leader in the Brigade 2506 forces who landed in the ill-fated invasion, and he referenced the support they gave him.

Older Cuban-Americans who were in the first wave of immigration to the United States helped deliver him a narrow victory in Florida, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami.

“He will be pleasing the more conservative sectors in his own party,” said Duany. The wider Cuban-American population is more supportive of the Obama policies, according to research done by his institute. But younger Cubans are less likely to be US citizens. And those who are tend to vote less frequently than the older generation, he said.

“This whole idea that we should go backward is just stupid,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who was instrumental in forging closer relations with Cuba. “I’m trying to think of a better and more eloquent word. But it’s just stupid.”

McGovern predicted the changes will play into the hands of hard-liners in Cuba who favor a less friendly posture toward the United States.

He said Trump is partly motivated to make the change because of his dislike of the former president.

“He wants to erase Obama’s legacy in any way he can,” McGovern said.

Trump experienced similar pushback for his decision to pull out of the Paris accord. The agreement that the Obama administration entered with 196 other countries had support from majorities in all 50 states, according to a May 2017 report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

That poll found that the majority of Democrats (86 percent), unaffiliated voters (61 percent), and Republicans (51 percent) supported the policy.

Yet another polarizing aspect of Trump’s leadership is his favored form of communication: Twitter.

A poll this month by Morning Consult showed that 69 percent of registered voters believe that Trump tweets too much, including 53 percent of Republicans.

Even Trump’s base is split on his Twitter habit, said Luntz, the Republican pollster, who had just conducted a focus group of Trump supporters in Ohio.

“They feel those tweets are him talking to them personally,” said Luntz. “They follow him and they wake up in the morning and they can’t wait to get to their phone to see what he’s said,” Luntz added.

But half the members of his focus group wanted the president to hold his thumbs and tweet less frequently. “Nobody said ‘stop,’ ” Luntz said.

Democrats believe that Trump is cementing ties to his base out of a hope that they can help save his struggling presidency: An excited base helps him keep congressional Republicans in line.

“He knows he’s in trouble. He knows he needs the Republicans in Congress to stay with him, including if things get dicey,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, referring to the investigations into Trump’s possible campaign ties to Russia and a reported probe into whether the president obstructed justice.

“Exciting the base, having the base as enthusiastic as possible, means having the Republican congressmen scared if they go against Trump,” Rendell said.

There’s plenty of time for Trump to win back those independent voters if he’s able to weather the current storms.

“Two and a half years from now, if Trump is still president, he pivots and tries to win them back,” Rendell predicted.

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.