Trump, savoring his success, leaves much of world wondering what’s next

Posted at 7:58 AM, Jun 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-30 09:58:26-04

President Donald Trump was in the East Room of the White House on Friday to trumpet the six-month anniversary of his tax cuts, the singular legislative achievement of his presidency so far.

But as his teleprompter instructed him to rattle off statistics about the tax law, Trump determined it was the time and place for a bigger celebration.

"Our country is doing so well, possibly as well as it’s ever done," the President declared. "I don’t think it’s ever done like this."

As a statement about the country, Trump’s remark is debatable. Thousands of immigrant children remain separated from their parents after crossing the southern border illegally. Another mass shooting took the lives of five at a Maryland newspaper. Traditional US alliances appear to be fracturing.

But as an assessment of his own political position, Trump’s optimism this week seems warranted.

After a half-hour huddle with Trump at the White House on Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, handing the President a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the ideological bent of the Supreme Court. Trump is interviewing at least a couple of candidates this weekend at his golf resort in New Jersey.

"I’m very honored that he chose to do it during my term in office, because he felt confident in me to make the right choice and carry on his great legacy," the President said during a campaign rally Wednesday night in Fargo, North Dakota. "That’s why he did it."

Privately, Trump has marveled at his luck in facing two Supreme Court vacancies during his first 15 months in office, according to people who have spoken with him. He’s declared the opportunity a legacy-making moment and hopes to instill his selection process with the type of drama — akin to a reality show — that he’s favored during previous deliberations.

Kennedy’s retirement was the second favorable result in as many days from the high court. A day earlier, a majority of the justices had upheld a version of Trump’s controversial travel ban, deeming it an acceptable use of his executive authority.

"Wow!" Trump tweeted about the ruling from his third-floor residence. Aides described the President as "vindicated," even though he’d once bemoaned the measure upheld by the court as a "watered down, politically correct version."

On Tuesday evening, Trump’s slate of favored Republican candidates emerged victorious in state primary races. He even found triumph in Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win in New York over longtime Rep. Joe Crowley, declaring the Democratic kingmaker a "slovenly man" who "got his ass kicked."

On Thursday, the details of Trump’s long-awaited summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin were finalized, months after Trump began pushing aides to organize it. The location — Helsinki, Finland — brings to mind images of George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev or Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin sitting for their own summits, a model Trump has told planners he wants to emulate.

"You never know about meetings," he said on Wednesday in the Oval Office as his Portuguese counterpart, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, looked on.

Even an ever-shifting cast of West Wing aides appears to be aligning in Trump’s favor. Chief of staff John Kelly may be nearing the end of his time in the post, multiple people familiar with the situation say. The President acknowledged Friday that he didn’t know how long the retired Marine Corps general, whose system of order Trump has come to resent, will remain in the job.

"That I don’t know," he shrugged. "I can’t tell you that."

Hope Hicks, Trump’s beloved former communications director, who left three months ago, may be eyeing a return, the President hinted.

"I’ve been hearing little things like that," he nodded. "I think everybody misses it."

And Bill Shine, the former Fox News president who was ousted over his handling of sexual harassment claims, finally consented to Trump’s request that he join the staff.

"The President wants someone who’s built the most successful cable network in history to help him oversee press and comms," the President’s senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said on Friday.

For Trump, it’s a "golden age," he told reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday as he escaped a heat wave in Washington for his first trip of the summer to Bedminster, his suburban New Jersey golf club.

"I think we’re doing great. We’re getting what we need," he said. "We have a lot of great things happening."

For Democrats, Trump’s victory lap is more akin to a hit-and-run. The prospect of another Supreme Court vacancy being filled by one of the President’s conservative picks has led to fears that the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling could be overturned. Trump’s political opponents, with little chance of blocking a justice nominee, hope instead to galvanize voters with the issue in November’s midterm elections.

Trump’s emboldened approach to foreign policy has led to equal anxiety in European capitals, where leaders are girding with steely resolve for his July visit. Unbound by a desire to maintain cordial relations with his counterparts, the President will arrive for a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, facing leaders who are preparing for the worst.

"Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends or allies, right?" Trump said during the rally in Fargo.

Already, his tit-for-tat trade battle with Europe has claimed an American casualty. Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson announced it would move production of Europe-bound motorcycles overseas to avoid new tariffs. The President took umbrage during an appearance nearby on Thursday.

"Harley-Davidson, please build those beautiful motorcycles in the USA, please," he said at the opening of a Foxconn technology plant in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin. "Don’t get cute with us. Don’t get cute."

Trump has sounded more optimistic about the encounter with Putin, which has been on his to-do list since he congratulated the Russian leader — against his aides’ recommendations — on his election win in March. While Trump insisted to reporters on Friday that he would raise the election meddling issue during the Helsinki summit, he repeated Putin’s denials of Russia’s involvement earlier in the week.

"Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!" he wrote on Twitter, going on to wonder why the FBI wasn’t investigating Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, if there’s one matter darkening Trump’s skies, it’s the Russia investigation. On Thursday, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who oversees the special counsel probe — was sparring with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the President was watching from the White House, taking note of which Republican lawmakers were hammering Rosenstein the hardest, according to an official.

Stories about the ongoing Russia matter have long been Trump’s obsession, and provided the genesis of his first "fake news" tirade shortly after he was elected President. Trump’s animus against the media has long since evolved beyond the Russia story into other subjects, and he’s harshened his rhetoric to accuse reporters of being the "enemy of the people."

That tough language was decried anew by journalists and their advocates after a gunman opened fire inside the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. The shooting suspect reportedly has a long personal grudge against the paper and there haven’t been any indications that he was influenced by Trump’s words. But the assault on journalists was a reminder of the precarious position reporters hold in an era of verbal attacks from the White House.

As he began his weekend aboard Air Force One on Friday, Trump affirmed that targeting reporters with violence was unacceptable. But he would not commit to toning down his words.

"It’s just not the right time to be talking about it," he said. "Obviously the press has treated me very badly. But in the meantime I’m President. So you know, I guess they didn’t treat me badly enough."

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