Donald Trump’s presidency has been rife with conflict and controversy since it began. But in the midst of a quickening special counsel investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, the administration is still managing to reshape the country in profound ways.
This dichotomy has left Democrats with the task of juggling between the drumbeat of Russia talk and kitchen table issues. And it’s left Trump allies both exuberant and fretful.
“Come New Year’s Eve if you’re a Republican in town, you're probably exhausted but you also should be quite impressed at everything we’ve got done this year,” Barry Bennett, former senior adviser to the Trump campaign told The Daily Beast. “It’s amazing it got done.”
The dichotomy came into sharper focus this week as the Senate passed a once-in-a-generation tax overhaul—tilted largely to corporations and the upper class—the same day that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team announced that it had secured a plea deal with former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Allies outside the administration barely had time to celebrate the former before expressing a range of concerns over the latter. Some dismissed Mueller’s investigation as a witch hunt that will touch only matters unrelated to the presidency. Others acknowledge that it had been a drain that wasn’t likely to get easier with time.
“None of us who backed President Trump from the beginning ever thought his term would be easy,” former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo told The Daily Beast. “I’d be lying if I said I knew it would be this hard.”
Increasingly, however, there are those close to the president who admit that the potential for damage is quite real, regardless of the merits.
“I don’t believe there’s an ounce of truth about Russia-Trump collusion, and so far there’s no evidence of it,” Newsmax CEO and Trump friend Christopher Ruddy told The Daily Beast. “But remember Nixon didn’t order the burglary, he didn’t even know about it. The ‘collusion’ claim is just an entry point for the Mueller probe, they are clearly looking for more, and the indictments and pleas all prove that’s true.”
Whether Trump is directly implicated or not will be determined in the coming months. But allies worry that the Flynn news will prove damaging in the near term regardless. Top aides—mainly Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and close adviser—will come under heightened political and legal scrutiny. And the president will have to adjust operationally.
“They [have to] do what other administrations do, ‘wall off’ the legal cases as much as possible,” Ruddy advised.
“Jared has been a very positive force at the White House and for the president, but it’s increasingly clear he is a key Mueller target,” he continued. “His position at the White House may become untenable because of the need for legal separation. I think it’s part of the whole Mueller strategy to divide Trump and his key advisers.”
In the midst of this growing cloud, however, the Trump administration has been churning out legislative and administrative accomplishments. The president has ramped up his nominations of federal judges, issued executive orders which have greatly damaged the Affordable Care Act, and most recently took the upper hand in a fight to control the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That’s in addition to the tax bill, which, if it passes, would not just overhaul the economic foundations of America but also have major impacts in the energy and health care sectors too.
If the presidency has been greatly imperiled by the Russia investigation, someone forgot to tell Trump.
“If I told you last year that by the end of 2017, that Trump would have taken control of CFPB, passed tax reform and repealed the individual mandate on Obamacare, you would have thought that was aggressive,” Bennett said.
For Democrats, the dichotomy of Trump’s troubles and his profound political impact has created their own set of strategic difficulties.
Congressional Democrats insist that, at home, constituents aren’t as interested in Flynn as they are in the rise of their premiums. But to a certain degree, news of the Russia investigation is impossible to separate from the rest of Trump’s agenda.
“If Republicans care at all about doing right by people, they would hold this bill until Mueller’s probe finds out whether or not President Trump obstructed justice,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) told The Daily Beast.
The difficulty is in hammering a message that spotlights the tax bill, or the administration’s attempt to undermine Obamacare, even as Mueller continues probing. James Zogby, a board member of Our Revolution and longtime member of the DNC told The Daily Beast that Democrats have a responsibility to craft a message that counters the economic agenda of Republicans in Congress, in particular by emphasizing that the highly unpopular tax bill will not help middle class families as promised.
“Do you gloat over Flynn? There’s nothing to gloat over yet,” Zogby said. “This is something for pundits to focus on.”
“[Republicans are] going to be able to go to their donors and say we cut taxes,” he added. “What they’re counting on is what the president counted on in the election. That is that you can fool all the people all the time. All they want is enough to get them through the next election. There ought to be consequences for them taking this risk.”
To a large degree, lawmakers have followed suit. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) went on a Midwest tour to rally support against the tax bill, he was met by impassioned audiences. Other senators have been able to use the passage of the bill to gin up list building and fundraising for the midterms.
The goal, operatives say, is to emphasize that Mueller may be making progress, but that it isn’t slowing down Trump and shouldn’t distract Democrats either.
“It’s important to try to focus the national attention on popular issues like Medicare for All, debt-free college, and ending giveaways to giant corporations in this tax fight—but it’s also immensely important to nominate candidates in 2018 who are bold, inspiring, and motivational to voters the way progressives did in Virginia in 2017,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee told The Daily Beast.