At a perilous juncture of his still-young administration, President Trump is retreating into his comfort zone. Days before fired FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony, Trump is taking aim at his political opponents on Twitter.
Trump’s recent flurry of social media activity leaves even the White House unsure of what to expect from the president when Comey dishes to senators about their Russia-related conversations.
But it’s not just the mainstream media or even liberal Democrats complaining. “I’m not a fan of the president’s tweets,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday afternoon ahead of a meeting between Trump and GOP congressional leaders. It is not the first time McConnell has expressed this opinion. “And that still remains my view,” he added.
“I think I would really like to recommend some Twitter policy changes,” Karen Handel, the Republican candidate in a closely watched special congressional election in Georgia, said Tuesday night. “Sometimes you should just put down the computer, the phone, and walk away.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer brushed off the criticism during Tuesday’s briefing, saying, “The president is the most effective messenger on his agenda.” Trump appears to believe that himself, as he frequently discards his administration’s carefully crafted talking points and punches back at detractors on his own.
Even before Comey’s first words to the Senate Intelligence Committee or special counsel Robert Mueller’s earliest public findings, the Russia investigation has slowly eaten away at Trump’s presidency.
Clouds of suspicion now swirl around his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, husband of Ivanka Trump. It has driven a rift between the president and his first influential Washington supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who reportedly once offered to resign and did not receive a vote of confidence at Tuesday’s press briefing.
Vanquished rival Hillary Clinton has spun an elaborate web connecting Russian hackers to Republican communications and data experts while new leaks purport to show Russian attacks on U.S. election officials — allegations that even if never proven further erode Trump’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Americans.
Trump despises those legitimacy questions. He has labeled the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” even after his own Justice Department tapped Mueller to oversee it — a chain of events set in motion by Sessions’ recusal.
Allegations of collusion between his campaign and the Moscow meddlers, Trump has repeatedly said, are just a pathetic Democratic excuse for losing an election they were sure they would win.
“Twitter is his last refuge,” said a national Republican operative who requested anonymity to discuss the president candidly, adding that the social media platform still reaches Trump’s target audience.
“The president knows how to channel his core voters’ anger,” the operative said. “It is his top political skill.”
It was on display after the latest terrorist attack in London, when Trump berated the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan. “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'” the president tweeted.
The tweets were undiplomatic and perhaps not presidential. Typically, political leaders try to calm down the public after an emergency or outbreak of violence rather than inflame angry feelings.
“A lot of Trump voters want to hear someone who doesn’t talk like a politician and is as angry about this as they are,” said the GOP operative.
Consequently, Trump tweets about eschewing political correctness and getting serious about national security. He defends his controversial executive order as a “travel ban,” taking swipes at his Justice Department for allowing it to be “watered down.”
“Trump is a ‘best defense is a good offense kind of guy,'” said a second consultant who works on Republican campaigns. A third GOP strategist lamented Republicans’ reluctance to defend their own and eagerness to “run to the microphones” to slam Trump when “an artful silence might be the wisest path.”
It was how Trump handled the darkest moments of the campaign, when he was all but left for dead by the Republican establishment and described in media reports with words like “isolated” and “alone.” When cornered, he lashed out.
Then in addition to Twitter, Trump bonded with his diehard supporters at large, televised rallies. He engaged in risky publicity stunts, like inviting when who accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, assault or rape to a presidential debate.
Trump was so devoid of defenders in the conservative press and the Republican campaign consultant class that cable news networks had to recruit a whole new set of commentators to back him on television.
Now facing what is arguably Trump’s most challenging political environment since the lewd “Access Hollywood” tape was released a month before the election, he is in familiar territory. Prominent cable news surrogates are hard to recruit. People are once again dismissing him as someone too distracted and undisciplined to do what needs to be done, an angry man alone in a room with a phone.
As Trump is quick to remind everyone, he won anyway. Thus, his terse Tuesday message to Comey ahead of the ousted FBI chief’s testimony: “I wish him luck,” Trump told reporters.