Trump’s goal is not to be a “successful president” in the usual sense of that term. It’s obvious by now that he doesn’t have much of a policy agenda. He has a personal agenda, and that agenda is going rather well. The Trump brand is thriving. His family is planning a second hotel in Washington, D.C. He is busily promoting his properties. He has paid little political price for violating his promises not to bring his children into government. And while the Kushner family’s hopes for a big payday deal with a Chinese bank have been balked for the time being, Trump still enjoys almost total ethical leeway within Congress, as my colleague McKay Coppins has nicely detailed.
Trump retains his grip on the Republican caucus in Congress and the all-important conservative media complex. He isn’t winning many legislative battles—but neither is he losing the battles that count most for him. His tax returns remain secret, and so for the most part do the details of his campaign’s Russian connections. As embarrassing as it is that the health bill collapsed, it would have been far worse for him politically had it passed.
It remains always possible for a president to regain the initiative. In Trump’s case, that initiative is found in battles over trade and immigration: the issues that won him the Republican nomination and that his base inside the party cares about most. He doesn’t even need to win. He just needs to be seen to fight.
Trump faces one hard practical test: Can he sustain sufficient enthusiasm within the Republican base to motivate turnout to keep Congress in Republican hands after 2018?