President Donald Trump is off on a 17-day vacation at his golf resort in central New Jersey. Trump departed Friday, hoping to leave behind the Washington turmoil that has largely engulfed his presidency in recent weeks and brought about the appointment of a new White House chief of staff, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly.
On Thursday, Trump held a campaign-style rally in West Virginia, a state that voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a wide margin in last November’s election. The president is battling low poll numbers and a stalled congressional agenda and often returns to his base supporters in search of a boost.
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Slamming the Russia probe
Trump lashed out at the ongoing Russia investigation, dismissing it as a “total fabrication.”
“We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you. That I can tell you,” Trump said to cheers from the West Virginia crowd. “They are trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us, and most importantly, demeaning to our country and demeaning to our Constitution.”
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Trump’s rally was held in the wake of reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has convened a grand jury to hear evidence in the Russia probe.
Good crowds, bad polls
Trump’s rally in Huntington, West Virginia, demonstrated that he can still draw an enthusiastic crowd. But that has not stopped his slide in national polls.
The latest Quinnipiac University survey has him at 33 percent approval, a new low. “Of course Republicans side with him,” said Quinnipiac’s Tim Malloy via Skype. “But that number now is, like, in the 70s, and it was up in the 90s. So he is losing Republicans.”
Before Congress left on its long August recess, there were growing signs of discontent among Republicans with the president, especially in the wake of the recent Senate failure on health care.
Trump’s call for the Senate to eliminate the parliamentary tactic known as the filibuster drew a sharp retort from Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell. “There are not the votes in the Senate, as I’ve said repeatedly to the president and to all of you, to change the rules of the Senate.”
Another Republican, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, agreed. “The last thing we want to do is turn politics into a complete free-for-all. The idea that you have to work with the other side on occasion is probably a good thing.”
Trump signed a Russia sanctions bill into law this week after it received strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. But he also issued a tweet slamming Congress over the Russia bill and the recent health care failure, prompting pushback from the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Bob Corker.
“We acted, I think, in the country’s national interest in doing this,” Corker told reporters. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin, through his actions, is the one who has taken this relationship back to levels we haven’t seen since 1991.”
Experts said Trump’s combative style, which occasionally targets Republicans as well as Democrats, motivates his opponents, but also still plays well with his base supporters.
“He campaigned as a very unconventional, kind of rough-around-the-edges candidate, and he hasn’t really changed that since he’s been in office,” said University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik.
Trump remains upset about the health care failure in the Senate. But some Republicans contend he did not do enough to sell the Republican replacement bills to the public.
“The president does not seem particularly well versed on the intricacies of policy,” said Kondik. “On this, I don’t think the president has really given much direction to Republicans. He hasn’t really indicated what he wanted.”
One possible silver lining in the Senate impasse on health care is that there is increasing talk among some members of Congress to push for a more bipartisan approach to help bolster health insurance markets in various states.
“We have a lot of bipartisan discussions going on right now. More than we have had in months,” said Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, shortly before Congress left town.
When they return in September, lawmakers face the challenge of increasing the government debt limit to prevent a default and approving a spending bill to keep the government open into October and beyond.