President Trump is right about this much: The Russia investigation really is interfering with his ability to enact his agenda. If there was any doubt about that, remember that this week was meant to mark the big rollout of Trump’s ambitious plan to rebuild America’s roads and bridges. But good luck finding anyone in Congress talking about infrastructure anymore. Infrastructure Week has been replaced by Comey Week.
According to prepared remarks released Wednesday by the Senate intelligence committee, former FBI Director James Comey plans to tell the committee that Trump called him on March 30 and told him that the Russia investigation was “‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country.” Trump, Comey says, then asked him what could be done to “lift the cloud.” Comey says he was noncommittal; Trump fired him six weeks later.
Experts are already debating whether Trump’s comments — assuming Comey’s description of them is accurate — constitute obstruction of justice. But whatever the legal implications of the previously undisclosed phone call, there’s little doubt that the cloud Trump (allegedly) described is real. There are at least three big ways that the Russia investigation and all its various branches could derail Trump’s plans.
It makes it harder to win over Democrats
Trump is hugely unpopular among Democrats, so working across the aisle was never likely to be easy for him. But there are parts of Trump’s agenda, including boosting manufacturing and renegotiating trade deals, that could have appealed to the more populist wing of the Democratic party. And on infrastructure, at least, Trump had a shot at attracting true bipartisan support — Hillary Clinton, after all, also called for increased investment in infrastructure during the campaign.
The Russia investigation, however, has made Trump even more toxic among Democrats than he already was. Liberal activists are on the lookout for any signs that moderate Democrats are being soft on Trump, meaning that working with the White House could leave Democrats in Congress open to primary challenges. (If politicians care about anything, it’s getting re-elected.) And strategically, Democrats have little incentive to give Trump any victories at a time when his popularity is falling and his administration is riven by internal disagreements.
Losing potential Democratic allies is more than an image problem for Trump. Unlike on issues such as health care and taxes, Trump needs Democratic support to pass an infrastructure package. That’s because under the Senate’s rules, such a package almost certainly can’t be passed through the fast-track procedure known as “reconciliation,” meaning the bill will effectively need 60 votes to pass. Republicans only control 52 seats in the Senate.
It makes it harder to keep Republicans in line
Republicans are already learning that it can be harder for a party to maintain unity once it is in power. Fractures in the Republican coalition nearly killed health care reform once, and they still could again. A similar battle is brewing over tax reform.
A popular president can help overcome intra-party disagreements through a mixture of cajoling, strong-arming and appeals to party loyalty. But Trump isn’t popular overall, and there are signs his support may be eroding among Republicans as well. It’s hard to know exactly how much of Trump’s unpopularity is due to the Russia investigation, but his latest plunge in the polls began right around the time he fired Comey. At the very least, the Russia story is taking media attention away from issues that could bolster Trump’s support.
There is a possibility that this turns into a feedback loop: Trump’s unpopularity makes it harder for him to score victories, which hurts his popularity, and so on. It’s also possible, of course, that Republicans could put their differences aside in order to give him — and themselves — some badly needed victories. But the more damaged Trump is, the less likely that becomes.
It runs down the clock
Trump’s first 100 days in office ended with few concrete accomplishments other than Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. Since then, Trump’s agenda has only fallen further behind schedule. The Senate is scrambling to vote on a health care bill before July 4, though it is unclear whether Republicans will have the votes to pass it. Tax reform was once meant to be completed over the summer; the White House now says it won’t even present a detailed plan until September. And the Treasury Department wants Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling before its summer recess; that vote has the potential to become a bruising and time-consuming fight.
It’s safe to say that the Russia investigation won’t do anything to help Trump’s agenda get back on track. This week’s hearings — senators questioned intelligence leaders on Wednesday and will hear from Comey himself Thursday — aren’t the first to dominate Congress’s attention, and they almost certainly won’t be the last. And it isn’t just Congress that’s distracted. Key figures in the White House are plotting strategy for dealing with the investigation (or talking to their own lawyers about how to avoid personal legal problems) rather than helping to draft and pass major policies.
It might seem silly to talk about the clock running out on an administration that is not yet six months old, but historically, the first year of a presidency has been a high point for achieving major policy goals. By next year, Congress will be eyeing the midterm elections; when those wrap up, the sprint to the 2020 presidential election will be beginning. Trump, in other words, needs the clouds to part quickly if he wants to achieve his ambitious agenda.