President Donald Trump hoped to score a reset with his first foreign trip but is instead returning to a barrage of controversy at home.
The Russia probe, already put under the supervision of special counsel Robert Mueller before Trump left, has now touched his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner—and threatens to fatally distract from Trump’s domestic agenda, including the health care reform bill he managed to squeak through the House.
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With Congress still on recess, Trump faces a news cycle dominated by scandals he’s largely created himself.
Here are six things to watch this week as Trump gets back to work at the White House.
Will Trump address the controversies around Kushner?
Kushner reportedly discussed trying to set up a secret back channel to Moscow, using Russian networks, with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a December meeting at Trump Tower, a move former senior officials say would have been highly unusual.
The White House has so far trotted out top officials to defend Kushner, with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster saying he’s “not concerned” and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly saying he thought “any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing.”
But Rep. John McCain said Monday the reports made him uneasy. “I don’t think it’s standard procedure prior to the inauguration of the president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position,” McCain told Australia’s ABC.
Trump himself has been relatively mum, only issuing a statement to The New York Times that he has “total confidence” in Kushner, while reports have proliferated that the president has grown increasingly irritated with his son-in-law, especially regarding allegations that his sister, who works for the Kushner real estate company, pointed out the family’s connections to the White House as she tried to drum up business.
It’s not clear whether the president, whose words are being more carefully vetted by lawyers now that he’s home, will be able to resist commenting on such serious allegations against a member of his own family.
With a growing number of Democrats calling for Kushner’s security clearance to be revoked, the pressure will likely intensify upon Trump’s top adviser, and the president may not be satisfied leaving the defense of his family to other officials.
Will that long-rumored staff shakeup finally happen?
Rumors of a shakeup in the White House communications shop abounded before Trump left. During the trip, press secretary Sean Spicer—who is set to take a lower-profile role after months hosting contentious, but closely watched, televised briefings—took a backseat role, letting other senior staff brief reporters.
While Trump was away, old campaign hands and close friends—including controversial former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy—have been in talks to help manage the snowballing scandals.
Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, both frequently rumored to be on their way out of the West Wing, returned early from Trump’s trip, in part to help manage the Russia-related crises. Kushner himself might be thinking of leaving, though it’s not clear whether Trump would push for his own son-in-law, long among his closest political advisers, to go.
But Trump often openly discusses the possibility of major personnel moves with aides and friends, without actually following through.
And amid so much controversy, a shake-up could just give the appearance of yet more chaos in Trump’s West Wing.
What about that Paris climate deal?
Trump has promised a decision on whether to remain in the landmark Paris agreement on climate change this week—and such an announcement could help him distract from the topic of his administration’s Russia connections.
An exit from the agreement would be in line with Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and it would allow his administration to pursue an even more aggressive push to boost the fossil fuel industry here at home. Both Bannon and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt support dropping out—but others in the administration, including chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, are pushing the other way.
Foreign allies lobbied Trump hard for the U.S. to stay in, warning that an exit from the agreement could be disastrous, both for American standing on the world stage and for the climate. Without the participation of the U.S., the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the agreement will be badly weakened—and an exit from the deal would lead to even more deterioration in the already-strained U.S.-European relationship.
The president remains undecided, according to senior administration officials—but he acknowledged his indecision and even promoted his impending determination on Twitter, much as he tried to create suspense around the February announcement of his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
The decision is arguably the most consequential Trump has had to make so far — and the final decision could ultimately be a call for re-negotiation.
What happens on health care now that Trump called for ‘more’ spending?
Trump still needs to get his health care reform through the Senate — no easy feat. The president took to Twitter with a rather surprising declaration on Sunday night: ”I suggest that we add more dollars to Healthcare and make it the best anywhere. ObamaCare is dead – the Republicans will do much better!”
But his plan, the American Health Care Act, would vastly reduce government spending on health care. In fact, that’s part of the goal.
And the declaration on Twitter is just the latest head-scratching comment on health care from the president. Trump’s in early May caused mild alarm when he pronounced that Australia’s healthcare system, which provides universal coverage, is superior to the U.S. system. The AHCA, however, would leave 23 million more Americans without health insurance, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
While lawmakers have learned to largely dismiss Trump’s musings about legislation on Twitter, such statements are going to make Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s job that much more difficult, and the White House will likely be pressed to address the discrepancy.
Will Europe’s Trump-bashing continue? And will Trump hit back?
On his trip, Trump has made his distaste for European multilateralism clear, and apparently the feeling is mutual. One EU official compared Trump’s meetings with NATO leaders to “when there’s a new strange kid in the class nobody likes.”
Europe “must take its fate into its own hands,” Merkel said after the visit, in a statement some took as a repudiation of the US-led order that has been central since the end of World War II.
And newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron quickly contrasted himself with Trump, slamming two state-run Russian media outlets in front of visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at Versailles. Trump, by contrast, has repeatedly praised Putin and reserved his own media criticisms for the U.S.’s free press.
With European leaders flexing their muscles and showing a willingness to shrug off Trump, how will he respond?
Will the White House be able to change the narrative — this week, or ever?
Trump has been critical of his administration’s press shop, and the reason is clear: week after week, the White House has been unable to drive a message or control the narrative, and instead has been thrust on the defensive. Where blame for this lies, whether in the press office or Trump’s Twitter account or the simple reality of scandal, is open for debate.
But Trump’s frustration is real, as is that of Republicans across government. Every new Russia story makes is that much harder to push health care and tax reforms.
Part of Trump’s success during the campaign came from his ability to drive media coverage and control the story. The blanket media coverage that so aided him on the campaign has not been helpful in his first few months of governing.
This week will mark one of Trump’s biggest tests yet as he tries to contain and defuse the quickly spreading scandals.