By Niall Stanage - 06-25-17 06:00 AM EDT
President Trump risks squandering the momentum he has gained from some good news in the last week, according to both Republican strategists and independent observers.
In a Friday interview on Fox News Channel, Trump renewed his assault on the Justice Department's special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating allegations of cooperation between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia.
The day before, Trump made an embarrassing climbdown, admitting that his earlier suggestion that he had taped conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey was untrue.
Those moves fit into a pattern of behavior that reportedly caused Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a former GOP senator, to tell House investigators on Thursday that Trump seemed "obsessed" with the Russia probe.
They were also a distraction from some positive developments for the White House.
The victory of Georgia Republican Karen Handel in the most expensive House race in history on Tuesday delivered an important boost to the GOP, and caused consternation among Democrats, who believed that they could ride anti-Trump sentiment to victory.
The Senate also produced a draft healthcare bill - proof that the GOP is making some kind of legislative progress, even if the ultimate outcome is in doubt.
Trump's capacity to inflict wounds on himself - often by generating a controversy that overshadows more mundane progress - frustrates many Republicans. They also grapple with why he has not been able to curb that tendency.
"I think what happens is that, instinctually, he always wants to fight back on several different fronts. What would be most helpful to his agenda is a singular focus," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden.
"The salvation lies in promoting the agenda," Madden added. "That's when progress is made."
Trump's tendency to vent on social media has long frustrated Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has publicly implored Trump to pull back on Twitter.
A report in Friday's Washington Post revealed that the president has a "new morning ritual" of phone calls with his outside legal team - calls that are apprently welcomed by his political advisers and might help nudge him away from incendiary tweets, according to The Post.
But the president's tendency to court controversy is not limited to social media. In his interview with "Fox & Friends," broadcast Friday, Trump described it as "very bothersome" that Mueller was "very, very good friends with Comey" and suggested that the people the special counsel had hired were "all Hillary Clinton supporters."
Mueller was Comey's predecessor as FBI director and the two men know each other well. But Mueller is also respected across the political spectrum, and his defenders insist that he will investigate without fear or favor.
At the White House media briefing on Friday, press secretary Sean Spicer reiterated that Trump had "no intention" of firing Mueller, despite speculation to that effect that flared earlier this month. Spicer would not be drawn out to comment on Trump's remarks made during the Fox News interview, saying instead that his quotes "speak for themselves."
In addition to his criticism of the special counsel, Trump told Fox News that Mueller was "an honorable man."
The peculiar saga of the apparently nonexisting tapes of his conversations with Comey was another distraction, however. Trump tweeted in mid-May that the former FBI director "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" On Thursday, Trump tweeted that "I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings."
Even some staunch Trump supporters acknowledge that the taping furor was at best unhelpful.
"I think that was probably something that was not necessary, because President Trump had plenty of good information to share with the public that helped his case," said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist and early Trump supporter (and no relation to the special counsel). "Comey had said that there was not any evidence of collusion. I think it is smart to keep your focus on that and not let yourself get carried away."
But Mueller also argued that Trump is in much better shape than his detractors believe. He cited the advancing healthcare legislation, as well as actions that have already been taken on issues ranging from business regulation to immigration.
"This is a president who can walk and chew gum at the same time, and he'll be able to move forward on his agenda while also playing a strong defense," he asserted.
Others noted the ever-present danger of assuming that controversy hurts Trump in a fundamental way. His political doom has been predicted incessantly since he began his quest for the White House two years ago, and he has consistently proved the naysayers wrong.
"There were many instances in the campaign when he got some momentum but couldn't let prior things go, and would continue to tweet about them in ways that, at the time, many of us thought would be damaging to him," said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. "But he defies normal expectations. The things that we thought would kill him, haven't."
Skeptics point out that Trump's approval ratings are historically low. But Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill, is among those who harbor serious doubts about polling in relation to the president.
In November, Trump won the presidency by rolling up victories in big Rust Belt states that he had been projected to lose to Democratic nominee Clinton. Polling in this week's special election in Georgia's 6th District suggested a dead heat, yet the GOP candidate won by almost four points in the end.
"Yes, his polls are low," Feehery said. "But you can also wonder if those polls are accurate or relevant since he has always been low in the polls and keeps winning. I think it is actually politically incorrect to be pro-Trump. There aren't that many people who are willing to tell a pollster they like Trump."
In making that argument, the GOP strategist did not deny that Trump makes tactical errors. The question, he said, was how much they matter.
"There is always the possibility that he is going to step on his message, but he has done so through throughout his political career," he said. "That's the confounding reality of Donald Trump - he seems to step on his message but it doesn't seem to hurt him that much."
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.