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What Should Trump Do Next?

In this week’s politics chat, we debate what the Trump administration should focus on next, now that its health care reform push has fallen apart.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Our topic for today:

More specifically: With the Republican health care bill in shambles, what should Trump do now?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Eat a lot of ice cream.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Is Trump toast?

micah: No. That’s not our topic.

clare.malone: He is toasty looking.

natesilver: He is at a new low in our approval ratings tracker, 41.8 percent.

micah: Should Trump:

  1. Go to war with the Freedom Caucus?
  2. And/or try to form a governing coalition with moderate Democrats?
  3. And/or ditch Paul Ryan?

What are the other options?

natesilver: What Would the West Wing Do? (WWWWD?)

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Those are not great options.

micah: We need more options.

perry: I think getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court is step No. 1.

Show you can do something.

micah: Focus on Gorsuch.

clare.malone: You don’t want to go to war with the Freedom Caucus, do you?

I mean, I would think you’d try to loop around them. Court moderates?

perry: And House Speaker Paul Ryan has the same problems former Speaker John Boehner did. Replacing Ryan is not a solution.

natesilver: Trump should put forward a big infrastructure bill — which could potentially be quite popular — and dare Congress to oppose him.

perry: Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, hinted on a Sunday show that they would court moderate Democrats.

clare.malone: Yeah, infrastructure seems like a surer bet than taxes, right?

perry: Right


perry: Tax reform is hard and complicated and will have GOP opponents.

natesilver: I think John Harwood has a pretty good summary here:

perry: Unless “tax reform” is just tax cuts for everyone, which would be fine.

natesilver: It feels like Trump needs a win in there. Gorsuch will probably provide one, at least in terms of keeping his base happy.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Let’s back up the train on Gorsuch. Let’s back it up. Chris Coons is saying that Republicans might not get the 60 votes necessary for cloture, which could cause the nuclear option to be invoked. (Getting rid of the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations.) Then you add on everything else. It’s not pretty.

micah: But even if that’s a fight, it’s a good fight for Trump, right?

natesilver: Gorsuch is somewhat popular with the public though, no? And Democrats haven’t had good messaging in why the Congress should reject him. Isn’t Trump sort of on the right side of the argument?

perry: Right now, yes. My only question is if public opinion is movable on Gorsuch, particularly if Trump/Stephen Bannon/Stephen Miller say something publicly that is problematic for the confirmation (“He will uphold our travel ban,” etc.)

harry: Gorsuch is somewhat popular, though not overwhelmingly so. My research indicates that the popularity of a SCOTUS nominee can be somewhat fluid. These types of things can cascade. It may not. But I think there’s a sense of blood in the water.

micah: But in terms of what comes next: Does Trump focus on Gorsuch to the exclusion of everything else? Doesn’t the White House need to decide pretty soon whether to do tax reform/infrastructure?

perry: Good question. They seem to saying tax reform is the next big project. I think it’s government funding first, then debt ceiling.

natesilver: In a purely tactical sense, there are worse fights Trump could have. Which is one disadvantage to Democrats filibustering Gorsuch. But I don’t think the Democrat base is going to let them get away with not taking a pretty tough line on Gorsuch.

perry: So what should Trump do? We seem to think Gorsuch, then infrastructure. But my impression is he is doing tax reform. I get the sense he is passionate about that issue. There’s some reporting they might try both at the same time.

natesilver: As you said, an across-the-board tax cut — à la George W. Bush in 2001 — could be reasonably popular. Something mostly geared toward high earners might not be.

micah: Yeah, I’m not sure why we think infrastructure would be that easy? Like, he’s vulnerable… are Democrats really going to bail him out and give him a win?

clare.malone: It’s certainly more in Trump’s traditional wheelhouse (tax reform).

natesilver: I’m not saying it would be easy to actually get something done on infrastructure, but Trump would be on the right side of public opinion, most likely.

harry: I like the tax cut idea if it’s broad and across the board. But is that something the House GOP would actually do?

clare.malone: I mean, some of our theorizing is a little moot … he seems to be pretty clear he wants tax reform. Don’t we think he’ll hold big sway with the agenda?

perry: No. A government funding fight and a debt ceiling one could take weeks to resolve — and again make Mark Meadows the star of D.C.

harry: We know, for example, that people think the rich don’t pay enough in taxes, and that they, themselves, pay too much. Of course, Americans felt that way too in 2001 too. One of the big lessons of the health care fight is that something cannot be seen as being geared toward the rich — or shifting the burden away from them. Yet, that’s also something that some Republicans (see Ryan, Paul) have an inclination to do.

natesilver: The Trump tax plan — or at least the one he was pitching on the campaign trail — involved massive tax cuts for high-income earners and smaller tax cuts (and perhaps even tax increases for some groups depending on how the bill was designed) for the middle class. So I’m not sure how that would poll. It would depend a lot on the marketing of it, and that’s not been a strength of Trump and the GOP so far.

perry: I wonder if Trump should go outside the Congress/big bill category. Bill Clinton did this on school uniforms. Barack Obama cheering on the gay rights movement and later Black Lives Matter.

micah: That’s interesting.

clare.malone: Immigration something.

micah: Yeah, maybe he does an outside-the-beltway push related to immigration in some way? Or ISIS.

natesilver: He’s also on the wrong side of public opinion on immigration in lot of ways, though.

clare.malone: This just in across the transom:

harry: Look at Trump’s approval ratings on immigration. Lots of low 40s and 30s. Perhaps certain elements of his plan are more popular, but I tend to think that the approval rating for the overall policy matters more.

perry: Policing, tax cuts, paid family leave. These are issues where he may find less resistance. And he mentioned them all in his big speech to Congress in February.

Immigration has hard lines. Trade?

harry: His higher approval ratings generally revolve around the economy and maybe terrorism. Keep in mind, his executive orders on restricting travel from several majority-Muslim countries didn’t poll that badly.

natesilver: Cracking down on sanctuary cities is an exception in that it’s an issue where the public seems to be with Trump. That’s a better fight for him than the border wall, for instance.

perry: Interesting. Do we think this Environmental Protection Agency policy is in the right direction? Is that pro-economy or anti-environment to voters?

micah: Yeah, I think — if done smartly — he could make a public push on some of these immigration and environmental policies framed around jobs. From the coasts, it’s easy to underestimate how well that stuff plays.

clare.malone: “The Waters of the U.S.” rule is the magic phrase in all that. It’s an EPA rule that Republicans loved to bash during the primaries with the notion that it was the kind of regulation killing industry.

natesilver: Opinion is also against him on removing environmental regulations.

micah: Polls shmolls.

harry: Plus, the environment is not an important issue in the eyes of voters.

perry: This raises the question: What on the Trump/GOP agenda is actually popular with the public? Nate keeps highlighting things that are not popular

micah: Not letting refugees in.

natesilver: His agenda isn’t that popular, which can happen when you only get elected with 46 percent of the vote, including a lot of people who come along grudgingly because they hated your opponent even more.

Remember, George W. Bush — who was elected under similar circumstances in 2000made a point of having a much more bipartisan agenda, although that changed a lot after Sept. 11.

Trump never really made noise about reaching out to the other side of the aisle. And Republicans chose a very partisan piece of legislation for their first major policy initiative, health care. Infrastructure bills and some tax cut proposals would be popular. Immigration and national security stuff seems to be on a case-by-case basis, with voters generally having more trust for Trump on the latter than the former.

harry: What Nate said … I think there’s a reason Trump has an approval rating in the low 40s according to our tracker. And sometimes people misread winning an election with winning a mandate. Those two things don’t always go together. Trump has behaved as if he won 55 percent of the vote. I also think we may underestimate how much his personality grinds on Democrats, which may make it more difficult for them to cross the aisle even on issues on which they agree with him.

micah: OK, let me flip this conversation a bit, from issues to coalitions…

Trump has the House and the Senate. He has Republicans and Democrats. He has the conservative, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus and the more moderate Tuesday Group. He has Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz.

Who should Trump be aligning himself with? Despite unified GOP control, Trump has yet to put together a real governing coalition — how does he scrap one together?

clare.malone: I mean, I would say the Tuesday Group.

natesilver: As a bit of math, if you don’t get any Freedom Caucus votes in the House, you need in the neighborhood of seven or eight Democrats, depending on how many people are absent from Congress at any given time.

clare.malone: That doesn’t seem craaazy. Even for 2017.

natesilver: But it also assumes you’re batting 1.000 with Republicans not in the Freedom Caucus, which is pretty unlikely.

perry: Clare, from your reporting, are there seven or eight Democrats in the House who would work with Trump?

clare.malone: There are a few Democrats who caucus to the right, I would say. And on something like say, infrastructure, you might be able pull people in. I think it depends … tax reform seems trickier to me (for many reasons).

harry: Tough for me to see too many Democrats going along with Trump when his approval rating with Democrats, according to Gallup, is 8 percent.

natesilver: There are 12 Democratic representatives from districts that Trump won, which is not that many, but it’s something. And maybe around five others that have oddly high Trump scores despite being in districts Hillary Clinton won. So there’s a little something to work with.

But as Harry says, Trump is really unpopular with Democrats, so he’s going to have offer actual concessions and not token-ish ones.

perry: My answer: Govern with McConnell. Figure out which bills will pass in the Senate. The American Health Care Act was going to die there anyway. And McConnell is, I would argue, smarter than Ryan on tactics.

harry: I like Perry’s answer.

micah: Don’t you still have to figure out the House?

natesilver: Could any bill that could pass the Senate also pass the House?

perry: Lol. That seems like a broader issue.

harry: Well, at least you’d know what coalition you’d need in the House.

natesilver: The weird thing about the Senate is that on a proportional basis, there are a lot more moderate Democrats.

clare.malone: Yeah.

micah: I guess that’s my point, though… I don’t think this is on Ryan. There’s a group in the House that says no to everything. If you don’t completely cater to the Freedom Caucus, you’re kind of screwed?

clare.malone: It seems like the House is the real knot to untangle for Trump.

micah: Agree ^^^

natesilver: You have the Red State Five in the Senate (Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester) who are gettable-ish on some issues.

perry: A small dissent. We saw a Freedom Caucus member leave the group on Monday.

micah: Yeah, that was interesting.

perry: If the Freedom Caucus was the only votes against a bill, and it failed only because of them, that would be interesting.

I wonder if that would change the membership of the Freedom Caucus.

clare.malone: It wasn’t though, right? In all likelihood?

perry: I think Bannon had that one point basically right: There was some value in having a vote on Friday.

natesilver: Trump (and Bannon) handled the last 24 hours of the health care imbroglio fine and were smart to hold a vote instead of letting things drag out.

micah: There was no vote.

harry: There was in Nate’s mind.

He’s next level thinker.

micah: Three-dimensional chess.

natesilver: Smart to **schedule** a vote.

Two-dimensional chess.

micah: 12-dimensional.

natesilver: 1-dimensional.


perry: If I were the GOP leadership, I would try to smoke out the Freedom Caucus a bit, see if they will vote down a bill the rest of the House GOP wants to pass. See if the Freedom Caucus is really 30 people or the core is really 15-20.

micah: Yeah, and that makes a big difference.

natesilver: I’m not sure health care was a great test case for that, though, since the bill could also easily have died from moderate opposition.

perry: Exactly.

harry: But I think the Freedom Caucus did something rather interesting, according to reports. They basically formed a union. A union not to get picked off. The question is what type of bill would the Freedom Caucus not like that everyone else would like.

perry: I suspect this upcoming government funding bill. But we will see.

natesilver: There’s also the idea, as brought up by Andrew Sullivan, that Trump will find some hawkish response to a terrorist attack or foreign entanglement as a distraction from his domestic woes. Which seems … not unlikely to me.

clare.malone: George W. Bush 2.0.

harry: Yemen War?

clare.malone: Only if the conflict is seriously affecting Saudi borders.I don’t see that happening. I.e., Yemen’s not important enough from the U.S.’s point of view to really waste a full on war with (it’s no resource-rich Iraq).

harry: They are weighing it.

natesilver: I sort of think Trump’s canny enough not to get the U.S. involved in another Middle Eastern war without a clear provocation.

micah: Wow. What the hell makes you say that?

natesilver: I’m thinking more about like what if the London attack last week had happened in front of the U.S. Capitol.

perry: I know we are nearing the end, but Clare wrote that interesting piece on Democrats’ effort to organize a resistance movement. I’m curious if we can have a brief “are the Democrats doing really well or is Trump’s team just making mistakes” discussion?

micah: Yeah, let’s wrap with that ^^^ question. Clare, you wrote that piece, so you go first.

clare.malone: My answer is: We don’t have enough information yet. There have been no elections to test whether or not the Democrats have their act together yet. That’s a lot of what my piece was talking about — how do the Democrats come back from the brink, electorally.

I think, though, that the Democrats’ potential filibuster of Gorsuch is an outcrop of that grassroots movement, perhaps.

micah: Yeah, I tend to agree. Although, the nature of the stumbles so far — travel ban, health care, wire-tapping, Russia — don’t seem very dependent on Democratic actions. So I think I lean towards the Trump team making mistakes. And whether Democrats have done a decent job capitalizing on those mistakes we’ll need an election to test.

natesilver: FWIW, I think there’s a pretty clear order of those stumbles, which is (1) health care (2) Russia (3) travel ban (4) wire-tapping. But you’re right that they’re mostly unforced errors.

micah: Alphabetical?

natesilver: Although, you can argue that Democrats won the long-term messaging war on insurance-for-everyone and that made it much tougher for the GOP to pass a health insurance bill. But, of course, Democrats paid a high price for their Obamacare votes in 2010.

harry: On the travel ban: There were Democrats out at the airports protesting. On health care: The Democrats did a good job selling what a crummy bill it was, and zero Democrats defected and voted for the bill. On wiretapping, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, has done a good job of making Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman, look silly. So yes, the Trump administration has set itself up. But also, Democrats have not screwed up those opportunities. Not yet, anyway.

perry: I basically agree with what Harry said.

micah: OK, final thoughts?

natesilver: There are still a wide variety of outcomes for how Trump’s presidency could unfold. But the successful ones increasingly require him to change course.

perry: Health care is really hard. Really hard. And the Russia controversy kind of saps the presidency in some unmeasurable ways. But if he gets Gorsuch confirmed, things won’t look as bad.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

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

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.