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Trump’s Problems Are Piling Up, So What Should He Do Now?

In this week’s politics chat, we do our best to right the Trump ship. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): The Trump administration, as Nate wrote this morning, is struggling. And since we here at FiveThirtyEight are patriots, I thought it’d be good to don our political adviser hats and offer President Trump and his team some advice.

So, here’s our playbook for today:

  1. What should Trump do on Russia?
  2. What should Trump do on policy?
  3. What should Trump do on politics/message?
  4. What should Trump do on staffing?

OK, so let’s start with Russia because we got news on that on Thursday. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that:

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, a sign that his inquiry is growing in intensity and entering a new phase, according to people familiar with the matter.

So what do you make of this news? Mueller is looking into whether Trump or Trumpworld people colluded with that interference. Is this a big deal? Expected? And what should Trump do?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I would say it’s not a surprise, but it’s a really big deal still.

Grand juries don’t have to lead to indictments. But they often do. And an indictment around the issue of the president and/or his allies would be, of course, a really big deal.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): It’s another mark on the yellow brick road. Chances are you wouldn’t bring a nothingburger to a grand jury (though that could happen).

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): What the fuck kind of mixed metaphor is that, Harry?

“Like they always say, don’t eat a nothingburger on the yellow brick road.”

micah: Honestly, I ❤ you, Harry, but you are terrible at metaphor-ing.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): OK, so the grand jury is another step. But what does Trump do as all this bad news is piling up?

He should ideally shut up about Russia stuff. Will he? Probably not. “Witch hunt” is probably in his top 10 phrases right now.

perry: Trump, I would argue, now really, really can’t try to fire Mueller or replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions so that a new AG would fire Mueller. That would have been a huge problem before but would be even more huge now.

natesilver: So … let’s say the Trump campaign actually did collude with Russia. Not “pee tape” level stuff, necessarily. But let’s say the Trump campaign actively helped/encouraged Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee (even though Russia could probably have figured it out themselves) and that Trump himself had knowledge of this. What should Trump do then?

harry: If he fires Mueller after Mueller impaneled a grand jury, it indicates Trump has something to hide.

natesilver: But what if he does have something to hide?

You’re his new chief of staff and over a round of golf, Trump is like, “Uhhh dude, actually we did collude with Russia.” What’s your advice?

harry: I guess he’d try to stall? I don’t know. Stalling works for only so long, though. Fire Mueller and someone else (Congress, for example) will likely pick up the investigation.

clare.malone: If he does have something to hide, he should be quiet.

I honestly don’t know what you do in that case.

natesilver: So none of you — and remember, we’re being as Machiavellian as possible here — think it would be “smart” for him to fire Mueller (even if he has a lot to hide).

perry: I do not think it would be smart to fire Mueller. We know a president has been removed from office for firing the special prosecutor. (To be exact, that was part of the process that led to Nixon resigning.) I don’t actually know what happens if you colluded with Russia. Some kinds of coordination/collusion may not actually be illegal.

clare.malone: Oh. Well … I think the whole looking into the legal angle of self-pardoning is interesting. And probably very worthwhile from the White House’s side of things. I.e., due diligence, which is what you hire those fancy lawyers for.

It’s a bold new frontier of constitutional law!

micah: But self-pardoning doesn’t inoculate him against impeachment. In fact, it would probably guarantee his impeachment, right?

clare.malone: You make a fair point.

natesilver: i think self-pardoning is the one thing that would almost guarantee his impeachment and removal from office, even with a GOP-controlled Congress.

harry: I just tend to believe that this stuff takes a long time to play out. Even if Trump has something to hide, they might not find it.

natesilver: But you could try to muddy the waters, no? “Hey, everybody plays a little bit dirty.”

“Hey, Mueller’s getting out of bounds with the investigation.”

harry: Sure — so why not yell at Mueller and not fire him?

micah: OK, so which is it? Keep quiet vs. muddy the waters?

harry: Just don’t fire him. That’s for sure.

clare.malone: Like, this is basically asking us, “How would you conduct a criminal conspiracy?” — if he is guilty and he tells his chief of staff that.

perry: Lol

natesilver: I’m asking you to give advice to the president of the United States, Clare, out of your sense of patriotic duty.

harry: This is what I’m listening to as we discuss all this:

micah: But I think the keep quiet vs. muddy the waters question is clarifying — because the correct answer, in my humble opinion, is to keep quiet if you think you didn’t do anything that would merit impeachment/removal from office and to muddy the waters if you think you did.

clare.malone: Under advice of counsel, I’m invoking my Fifth Amendment rights.

perry: Honestly, the real advice would be to pin whatever happened on Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. or Michael Flynn, admit something happened but say it was done by someone else and, yes, you should have done more to stop the collusion.

If he is actually guilty, that is what he would do.

micah: Perry gets realpolitik. I love it!

clare.malone: Yeah, I mean, Manafort and Flynn, since they are not family members, are the best bet, right? If we are thinking with Trump Brain.

harry: I like Perry’s idea. But, again, stalling like that only buys you time in my opinion.

micah: And then they likely flip on you.

(As a reminder: We’re talking about the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!)

natesilver: In Russia, the witness flips YOU.

I guess what I’m getting at — and this chat was supposed to be forward looking rather than backward looking — is that maybe Trump’s actions so far are more consistent with someone who does have something to hide.

micah: Nate, that was obvious about five months ago. That doesn’t mean he does have something to hide — just that he’s acting that way.

natesilver: hahaha

perry: Just to step back again … I know these incremental details on the Russia story are hard for people to gauge, in terms of importance. But impaneling a grand jury is the latest ramp-up of this investigation. So it’s an important development.

micah: OK, next up: policy. If you were advising the White House, what would you advise it to do? Keep trying on health care? Focus on infrastructure? Not push any policies?

perry: Stop on health care policy.

clare.malone: Well … seems like they’re making a little pivot to please the base with that proposal to cut legal immigration.

harry: Trump’s job approval rating dropped multiple times when health care measures failed in the House and Senate. If Trump is going to keep trying on health care, he has to succeed. And even then, he has to find a plan that people actually like.

natesilver: I’d throw Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell under the bus on health care (possibly with McConnell’s consent).

I’d hold a big press conference and say: “Mitch, Paul. Start over. This isn’t the bill I promised the American people. Start over, and let’s do something better.”

clare.malone: I think someone is probably in his ear saying, “Bide your time, and come back.”

natesilver: The thing about the GOP health care bills is that they weren’t popular with much of anyone at all, including with Trump’s voters. So you don’t face the trade-off you do on other issues between pleasing your base and reaching out to moderates.

clare.malone: You gotta let some of this develop behind the scenes so you don’t have a big ol’ public mess like you’ve had the past couple of months.

perry: I would do tax cuts (not tax reform, which is more complicated). And some kind of job-creating infrastructure bill that draws in West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other red-state Democrats.

natesilver: Yeah. A big ol’ tax cut, with plenty of tax cuts for the middle class.

clare.malone: I think you have to do something like infrastructure before taxes.

People need something that feels like a return to Trump’s campaign promises — rebuilding things! Making things! And also, bipartisan, so you can get points for that.

harry: Tax cuts are good because they are popular with Republican members of Congress. The potential problem with infrastructure is Trump might need Democratic votes, and I’m not sure he’ll get them at this time.

micah: Wait, let’s vote on this: Which should they do first, infrastructure or taxes?

Clare says infrastructure

Harry says taxes.

natesilver: They should have done infrastructure first, back in January or February. I think that ship has probably sailed, though. With Trump at 45 percent approval, he might have gotten a few Democratic votes. If he’s at 37 percent instead, they’ll probably be more inclined to let him fail. Unless he cuts them a very good deal.

harry: Yeah, I’m going with taxes. You can’t play for the middle when your support among your base is meh.

perry: I would say taxes, because I think Trump should get Republicans on the Hill back behind him first and worry about pleasing centrist members of Congress and swing voters later. And the Hill wants tax cuts.

micah: Hmm … the correct answer is infrastructure. Let’s not confuse Trump’s base with the GOP base. Trump should strike out on his own!

clare.malone: Yeah, Micah — welcome to the team!

natesilver: What reason is there to think he can get an infrastructure bill passed?

micah: He doesn’t need it to pass. He just needs to crusade for it.

clare.malone: I guess we’re all still thinking a little in the health-care mindset too.

That was an issue where Democrats couldn’t stray from the party line. And on other stuff, I think people feel a little more free to buck their party.

harry: Are we dismissing the idea that Trump wants wins?

natesilver: The “wanting wins” stuff is dumb as shit. That’s part of his problem. He’s watching too much dumb-ass media coverage and not thinking about the long term.

perry: I might disagree with the idea that voters (the GOP base or Trump’s base) matter much at this stage. Trump’s big problems right now are the Russia investigation (and possible impeachment) and the lack of progress in Washington on anything. So I would patch up things with Congress first if I were him. And I think that is with tax cuts.

micah: OK, so Clare and I won that argument.

No one wants to suggest that Trump should make a push on immigration (as he’s already started to do)? It feels like there’s an immigration push he could make that would sorta box Democrats in.

harry: Well, that’s certainly the direction Trump is going in. It’s a push toward his primary appeal, but how many people say they want to limit legal immigration?

micah: You tell me, Harry.

perry: Some Republican members don’t support the proposal Trump and two GOP senators put out on Wednesday limiting legal immigration. That doesn’t seem like an easy bill to pass. Maybe a bill that targets sanctuary cities and illegal immigration would be easier.

natesilver: The limiting legal immigration is a weirdly clumsy/unpopular idea on an issue where Trump’s ideas to limit illegal immigration might be fairly popular.

clare.malone: Yeah, what Perry said. He’s going to have some Republican problems too on limiting legal immigration. Like, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham was very vocal in opposing Wednesday’s proposal; he made the point that there are a lot of low-wage jobs that immigrants typically fill and that state economies rely upon to make certain sectors work.

harry: 62 percent(!) of American adults say legal immigration is not threatening to the U.S. Just 28 percent say the same thing about illegal immigration.

perry: Also, I think liberal opposition, which was a factor in the health care debate, would be very strong on immigration. I suspect it would be less so on a tax cut.

natesilver: It’s perhaps worth pointing out that the travel ban polled OK — at least compared with some of Trump’s other policies.

clare.malone: Yeah. So I have a theory that Democrats do need to be a little more clear/tougher in their immigration language.

micah: The Theory Of Clare-ativity

clare.malone: Right now, I think there’s this perception out there that the Democrats want everyone, no matter what, to just come into the country. This is an image that has, to a certain extent, been foisted upon them and maybe skews their actual stance. But it’s an image problem that is sticking, and they need to do some clarification on it.

micah: That’s a good segue to messaging.

Does Trump need to adjust his messaging/political strategy regardless of the policies he’s pursuing? Like, let’s just talk broad strokes.

natesilver: Is that a question, Micah?

micah: There’s a freaking question mark, isn’t there?

harry: Whoa.

natesilver: I once had an idea for a computer virus that replaced all exclamation points with question marks and all question marks with exclamation points.

micah: OK, let’s make it simple so that Nate can follow along. Fill in the blank: Trump should present himself as the __________ president.

perry: I’m somewhat skeptical that the messaging matters a lot, and I felt this way when former President Barack Obama was struggling during his presidency too. Trump can tweet what he wants, as long as he gets stuff done.

micah: Perry, that doesn’t really fit in the blank.

harry: I’d argue that one of the biggest problems for Trump is that he’s not positioning himself against a Democratic Congress. He’s butting heads with a Republican Congress right now.

clare.malone: I think that’s what he ultimately wants to do

perry: Trump should present himself as the disruptive, fix-it president. I think he basically has that right.

natesilver: Presenting himself as a populist outsider is fine. He hasn’t governed like one, though.

clare.malone: Right! So maybe that’s why he does infrastructure!

micah: YES!! Nate comes around.

natesilver: Another messaging thought: If I were Trump, I’d keep the media-bashing as part of my arsenal. Not discrediting everything as FAKE NEWS. But the trollish stuff is pretty effective.

perry: I agree with that, as much as it pains me to say as a journalist.

clare.malone: Nate would hire a troll. And put him under the Key Bridge and give him a phone and Twitter access.

harry: Most Americans agree that the media is biased.

natesilver: There’s some strategy there, in that Republican voters — including those who don’t particularly like Trump — still think he’s treated unfairly by the press.

micah: Can I return to Harry’s point about who controls the House for a minute? Does Trump want Republicans to lose control of Congress in 2018 so that he’ll have a foil? Does he need a foil?

perry: No, with Democrats in control of the House, you are really raising the odds of impeachment.

clare.malone: He wants more Trumpians in Congress, so he’ll just support primary opponents like he’s already hinting at with, say, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

natesilver: Trump maybe wants Republicans to lose the House, yeah. Although as Perry says … impeachment. So it depends on whether and/or how much he actually colluded with Russia and so forth.

harry: There’s a hot take out there that impeachment would be good for Trump politically. I’m not writing it, but it could be written.

natesilver: As Harry is getting at, there’s a world in which the justification for impeachment is somewhat flimsy and the politics of it actually become easier for him to handle if Democrats are leading the charge.

perry: Trump is currently bashing Republicans on the Hill. I don’t think that is smart. It sounds like Micah and Clare think that is smart? The triangulation approach more or less?

micah: I think it could be smart, yeah. I mean, it’s not like Republicans on the Hill are all that popular.

natesilver: In the world in which there are good reasons to impeach Trump — severe collusion, he’s fired Mueller, etc. — then Trump doesn’t want Democrats in charge of the House.

micah: The problem for Trump, I think, is he has such little credibility that he needs his policy agenda to back up his political messaging in a way that other presidents did not — they had a bit more wiggle room probably. But I think if Trump pursued a nationalist/populist agenda — let’s say infrastructure + middle class tax cuts + his hardline immigration policies — he could sorta triangulate between Democrats and Republicans.

It probably wouldn’t help the GOP in 2018, but it might help Trump in 2020.

Anyone buying that?

harry: It’s the Bill Clinton playbook, as Perry noted.

natesilver: It would take a lot of discipline. Almost half the country has a strongly negative opinion of his presidency. So it’s going to take sustained efforts to win them back. A half-hearted approach at populism could cost him more Republican support than it wins moderate support.

micah: To be clear: I don’t think this will actually happen.

clare.malone: But if he drank a magic potion that made him disciplined but kept all his rhetoric intact, you think it could?

micah: Yeah.

natesilver: That’s like asking if I could play in the NBA if I were a great athlete.

perry: I don’t think Trump has the staff for that kind of triangulation. His team is too conservative. (Vice President Mike Pence, for example) My advice to him would be to get up each day and think about what Marco Rubio would do and do that. Yes, Trump won the presidency his way, but being effective in Washington can help him win a second term. And I think governing through the party is an easier way to do that. Maybe think about what George W. Bush would have done (except on foreign policy).

micah: Good segue! Let’s talk staffing!

Were you an adviser to Trump, how would thoust advise him on staffing?

natesilver: Fire Jared Kushner.

clare.malone: Hire Ivanka Trump.

natesilver: Or keep Jared and do the opposite of whatever he says.

clare.malone: For real.

perry: He should choose either 1. nationalists (the Steve Bannon route), 2. moderates (Ivanka, Jared), or 3. Pence-style conservatives. And then staff his White House accordingly. His current staff doesn’t align. It almost invites tension on every issue.

micah: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Well, maybe he’s going for a TEAM OF RIVALS!?

perry: Does that work, outside of the Civil War?

natesilver: There’s a separate family issue, though. They’re not really qualified to provide good advice. And they leak all the fucking time.

harry: Teams of rivals don’t really work. Heck, even Abraham Lincoln got rid of that team of rivals.

clare.malone: Guys, what is the thing that Trump naturally grasps? Nationalism.

I think that’s what he goes with. If you’re going to tell him to pick a staffing strain of things.

micah: So go full Bannon?

clare.malone: And to that end, John Kelly is a smart hire. Someone who shares core values about immigration but who has the discipline the president lacks. Perhaps Kelly might do some talent hunting to replicate his own strengths.

natesilver: Bannon is also a hard guy to fire because he probably knows most of your secrets, and he has a big media platform that he can use if you turn on him.

micah: (Even in this role-playing setting, it makes me really uncomfortable to be advising the president to go full-Bannon.)

perry: So if Kelly is going in that direction (nationalism), that would align the staff. But my impression is that Kelly is kind of an organizational man, who is not really part of any of the factions. I could be wrong.

harry: That’s my impression as well. He’s an office manager, not an office leader.

micah: Isn’t he an immigration hardliner, Perry?

perry: Yeah, but Bannon wants to do lots of other things too, not just on immigration. I don’t know if Kelly wants to get out of NAFTA or realign foreign policy to stop the rise of Islam.

clare.malone: Everyone gets politicized. That’s my take. Eventually, he’ll lean to a side.

micah: 🔥-take

clare.malone: And if you’re in charge of the office, that can have an effect.

micah: 🚒

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.