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At a White House in crisis, Trump looks increasingly isolated

  • Published at 03:27 pm May 21st, 2017
At a White House in crisis, Trump looks increasingly isolated

US President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress are showing signs of going their own way, both on politics and policy, determined to salvage what they can of their agenda on healthcare and tax reform in the wake of one of the most difficult weeks of any American presidency.

At the same time, Trump's failure to fill senior roles at federal agencies means he does not have a cadre of loyalists who can help rein in a bureaucracy that many in Trump’s orbit believe are out to leak information intended to damage the president. That has worsened the isolation of the White House in a city that relies on friends and allies to shake off a crisis.

The result is problems on multiple fronts: a government whose bonds with Congress, federal agencies and the public look increasingly fractured; an ambitious but stalled program of reforms; and a president whose low approval ratings threaten his party’s control of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.

Trump and his beleaguered staff, some White House aides said, feel besieged by a parade of negative stories and abandoned by fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill, as the furore over the firing of FBI Director James Comey and allegations that Trump tried to influence the probe into Russian meddling in last year’s election show little sign of abating.

As the Russia probe entered a new phase on Wednesday with the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in the investigation, a move that will likely place the White House under even stronger scrutiny, some Republicans expressed surprise that the White House had not done more to recruit them to backstop the president.

Staff vacancies

The administration has continued to struggle to fill the hundreds of open positions at senior levels of government that remain open, leaving the White House alone to grapple with one challenge after another.

For example, the Justice Department still lacks senior officials in place to head up the anti-trust, civil rights, criminal, and civil divisions, as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to its website.

At the Department of Homeland Security, the chiefs of the US Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration, have yet to be confirmed.

And at the Department of Education, a sprawling bureaucracy of 4,400 employees with a $68bn budget, “all the key roles except for the secretary remain empty or filled with people in an acting capacity,” said a Department of Education official.

Many top State Department posts also remain vacant. Overall, more than 500 of the 557 federal government positions requiring Senate confirmation remain vacant. Only 33 nominees have been confirmed, and only 57 other positions now have a nominee, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organisation in Washington.

Capitol hill frustrations

A lack of communication from the White House left many Republicans on Capitol Hill frustrated as a sense of crisis mushroomed over the past week. One, Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own Russia probe, publicly complained about the situation.

Tuesday morning, after news broke the previous evening that Trump had shared classified information with Russian officials, Burr said he couldn't get through to the White House, as the story lit up television news programs and buzzed online.

Some Republicans said the constant focus on responding to allegations concerning the Russia probe was draining their caucus of focus and energy to push through their agenda.

Absent guidance, Republican staff members in Congress were beginning to devise their own strategy about how to respond to the gusher of bad news, one aide said.

And at the White House, with lines of communication to Congress seemingly frayed at times, a narrowing circle of people has come to the president's defence, as senior staff grapple not only with the cascade of revelations but with a president who at times contradicts on Twitter their talking points.

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