WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, after a nine-day trek overseas, will return home Saturday to not-so-welcoming Russia-related developments that political observers say distract from and imperil his legislative agenda.
While Trump was abroad, The Washington Post reported his son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to establish a communications backchannel with the Russians. The Post separately reported Trump had asked two intelligence chiefs to publicly deny any collusion between his campaign and Russia.
Also, an outside attorney was hired to represent Trump in special counsel Robert Mueller’s FBI probe and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn invoked the Fifth Amendment in congressional investigations.
The president also has yet to appoint an FBI director to replace the ousted James Comey.
“He got a reprieve but now it’s back to reality,” said William F. B. O’Reilly, a New York-based GOP consultant. “When he returns home, it’s going to be back to Russia and congressional hearings and Mueller and Comey and all the rest.”
Trump has denied that there were any collaboration between his campaign and Moscow in last year’s election. No evidence has been produced of any such cooperation.
This week — in a Washington without Trump — also saw the submission of his first full budget to Capitol Hill and a Congressional Budget Official analysis of the House health care bill.
Neither the budget nor the health bill is expected to come out of Congress intact — members of both parties rejected the budget as dead on arrival, and Senate Republicans say they’re drafting new health care legislation — but they represent chances at fulfilling key campaign promises, experts say.
“If there are no points on the board, it’s not good for the president or Congress,” O’Reilly said. “The Republicans who are laying into him want to see something delivered, but it’s going to be very difficult in this environment.”
Brad Bannon, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant, said Trump has no leverage over Congress.
“The Russia thing is going to preoccupy him because it’s a fight for his political survival,” Bannon said. “He’s going to have to deal with it. If he doesn’t, nothing else matters, not the budget, not health care.”
Michael Dawidziak, a Suffolk County-based pollster who worked on GOP presidential campaigns, said Trump also has a “crisis of trustability” among Americans at large.
“There is beginning to be a perception problem,” he said. “It is reminding me of the early days of Watergate. People still trusted Nixon, but slowly there was this eroding factor. It’s like dying of 1,000 cuts.”
On Thursday, a top Trump pick to lead the FBI, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), removed himself from contention.
Meanwhile, Comey likely will stay in the spotlight. He agreed to eventually testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the circumstances behind his May 9 firing, including whether Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn, as The New York Times reported.
The president has denied making the request.
Flynn asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in response to the Senate committee’s subpoena of his documents on contacts with Russia, but the House panel also is preparing subpoenas.
Senate Intelligence Committee member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), in an MSNBC interview Thursday, issued a public plea to Flynn: “Come and work with us. Help us prove your innocence. Don’t make us dig and dig and dig like we’re trying to find you’re guilty.”