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Trump sticking to his base first strategy


President Trump is showing virtually no interest in taking steps toward the political center after winning what he called a “clean bill of health” from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Trump has doubled down on his hard-line positions on immigration and is sticking to his base-first strategy despite the thumping House Republicans took in last November’s midterm elections.

Midterm losses have historically led past presidents to shift course: Former Presidents Clinton and Obama both sought to work with GOP-controlled Congresses after losing Democratic majorities midway through their first terms.

Trump, an unconventional president, has taken a decidedly different route.

“Trump is a different kind of president, and he is not likely to play by the rules that late first-term presidents play by,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston professor who studies the presidency.

Some in Washington believed Trump’s base play was in part motivated by a desire to shore up Republican support to protect him in the event Democrats decided to pursue impeachment proceedings.

But the chances of impeachment have fallen after Mueller declined to recommend charges against Trump, a result that might have allowed the president to move toward the middle and make appeals to independent voters ahead of his 2020 reelection race.

Instead, Trump has responded by going on a revenge tour against Democrats and media figures who accused him of colluding with Russia in the 2016 campaign.

He kept up the attacks on Monday, tweeting that “no matter what information is given to the crazed Democrats from the No Collusion Mueller Report, it will never be good enough,” even though the report explicitly did not accuse him or exonerate him on obstruction of justice.

The president’s controversial gambit to kill ObamaCare through the courts has also shaken and surprised Republicans, who worry that they could hand an effective political weapon to Democrats. His threat to close down the U.S.-Mexico border in order to stop illegal immigration could hurt the U.S. economy even if it pleases those who want tight restrictions on immigration.

Trump’s actions signal he believes that ensuring high turnout among his core supporters, at the expense of appealing to independents and moderates, provides his best path toward reelection.

“President Trump may not feel it is worth it to move to the center and risk the loss of support of the base,” Rottinghaus said. “This is going to be a base versus base election. If that is the case, President Trump’s nonmove to the middle is in support of it.”

Political observers also suspect Trump has not changed course because the Mueller investigation had less of an effect on potential voters than some expected.

An NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed Trump’s approval rating dipped slightly from 46 percent to 43 percent between February and March.

A Harvard CAPS–Harris Poll survey provided to The Hill showed the president’s approval rating remained virtually unchanged at 45 percent after the Justice Department released its summary of Mueller’s findings. Just more than half of respondents said the report does not change their level of support for Trump.

“However substantial this event was in the Washington, D.C., community and maybe our political culture, it was not an event that captured the American public,” said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who conducted the NBC–Wall Street Journal survey with Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

Trump has long paid lip service to working with Democrats on issues like infrastructure and prescription drug pricing. He hosted a celebration on Monday for the bipartisan criminal justice overhaul he signed into law, which the White House has billed as a blueprint for future efforts.

“Our country can achieve amazing breakthroughs when we put politics aside and put the interests of all Americans first. It’s true,so true, especially in these times,” Trump said.

The president will also need Democratic votes to win congressional approval of his revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But Trump’s natural instinct is to play to his base, in part by using inflammatory rhetoric that overshadows any gestures toward bipartisanship.

At his first post-Mueller report rally last Thursday in Grand Rapids, Mich., Trump accused Democrats of “defrauding the public with ridiculous bullshit” by continuing to pursue investigations even as he touted accomplishments like economic indicators and progress against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that could appeal to a broad audience.

Republicans say Trump’s stance is justified because he faces a Democratic Party that is equally opposed to working with him.

House committee chairmen continue to push ahead with investigations into Trump’s administration, campaign and businesses. A vocal group of progressive Democrats are still pushing for impeachment, despite resistance from party leaders.

“Democrats have their own Freedom Caucus,” said former Capitol Hill aide Doug Heye, referring to the group of conservative lawmakers that often breaks with House Republican leaders. “They are not going to work with Donald Trump on anything. That shouldn’t be a big surprise.”

Obama’s and Clinton’s presidencies were also marked by intense divisions between Republicans and Democrats, but they both made post-midterm moves designed to appeal to the middle.

Clinton famously adopted the strategy of triangulation to recover politically after the GOP took control of the House in 1994, supporting proposals like welfare reform that were traditionally anathema to Democrats.

Obama also pivoted toward a focus on deficit reduction after the Democrats’ House majority was wiped out in 2010, even though it did little to revive his legislative agenda under divided government.

Former President Reagan also offered a contrite message about the Iran-Contra affair, even though investigators never came forward with evidence he knew the full extent of the scheme.

In a March 1987 Oval Office address, Reagan said he took “full responsibility for [his] own actions” and expressed a desire to move on from the episode.

“Now what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons and then you move on,” he said. “That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem. This in no way diminishes the importance of the other continuing investigations, but the business of our country and our people must proceed.”

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