Inside President Donald Trump’s White House, no one seems to be looking forward to September.
Senior officials have described the coming month as “brutal,” “bad” or “really tough” because of the confluence of complicated issues — but they also say it’s pivotal to getting the presidency back on course.
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Aides hope to have a better blueprint for how the president wants to proceed on a series of thorny issues — the nation’s debt ceiling, the 2018 federal budget, tax reform, infrastructure spending and perhaps another stab at repealing Obamacare — after a series of meetings in New York this week.
Their goal is to partially temper Trump’s expectations, hammer out some compromises and get a competing band of aides on the same page. The month has taken on outsize importance among some top aides and outside advisers, who view it as key to getting the presidency on a better track.
“The stakes are very high in September,” said Jenny Beth Martin, who leads the Tea Party Patriots, a conservative grass-roots group. “There is a lot to do in a very short period of time.”
Trump, who is impatient, wants it all done immediately, said people close to the president — and he has ratcheted up pressure on aides in recent weeks, even though he doesn’t always engage with the substance of issues.
What makes the month harder is that many of the fights are in Congress, where the president and his team have little control.
“The president has made clear his commitment to getting health care, tax reform and infrastructure passed in Congress. There shouldn’t have to be a choice,” said Kelly Love, a White House spokeswoman.
Trump’s aides have prepared lengthy memos and presentations on the legislative calendar for Trump in New York and Washington next week to see how he wants to handle the policy debates.
The fights come as White House aides expect investigations into Russian collusion to heat up and amid a newly rocky relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell following a series of critical tweets and comments from Trump during his Bedminster, New Jersey, retreat last week. Other critical decisions are approaching, such as finalizing a strategy for Afghanistan and choosing whether to suspend the payment of Obamacare subsidies that keep insurance markets functioning smoothly.
And the president is increasingly venting about the apparent inability of the Republican Congress to agree on legislation, especially the Senate’s high-profile failure to agree on legislation repealing Obamacare. He has told others he will distance himself from any failures, even as some of his aides push him to cultivate stronger relationships on Capitol Hill.
“The Republicans in Congress only seem to be efficient at one thing: coordinating hearings on Russia with the Democrats,” said Sam Nunberg, a longtime Trump aide who left him in 2015 but still talks to administration officials. “At least they can get that done.”
September also presents several fights about which Trump’s aides aren’t in agreement. Fault lines are already coming into view, even as Marc Short, the head of legislative affairs, is trying to get everyone on the same page ahead of the Trump Tower meetings, several administration officials said.
A successful September for many in the administration would include keeping the government open, passing a budget without too much of a showdown, securing some money for the long-promised border wall and beginning talks on tax reform, officials said, while continuing to work on the health care issue.
But other Trump aides have loftier expectations. For some, such as strategist Steve Bannon and his allies, securing money for the wall is a fight worth having. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney would like spending cuts as part of raising the debt ceiling, but it remains unclear how hard he would be willing to battle for them.
Short is pushing to handle many of the budget issues quickly and to try to move quickly to tax reform, a strategy supported by Gary Cohn, the president’s economic adviser, and Steven Mnuchin, his Treasury secretary. But advisers are still wrangling with the fine details of a tax plan. Bannon wants a higher tax on the wealthy, which could go nowhere, and while he previously wasn’t involved in health care, Bannon has recently inserted himself into that fight, administration officials said.
The top headaches for Trump’s White House are the Sept. 30 deadlines for raising the debt ceiling and funding the upcoming year’s budget. The White House also wants to push agenda items, like more border money and defense spending, while also trying to curb deficits. White House officials, including Bannon, Short and chief of staff John Kelly, have told others they expect those fights to be messy.
The outcome that some White House officials fear is a three-month budget extension, only postponing the fight until December. Internally, White House officials are still battling over spending levels in the budget, according to several administration officials. Pressure is likely to rise from the conservative House Freedom Caucus for spending cuts for a budget and the debt ceiling, creating another clash with moderates like the one that tanked health care reform.
Trump, aides said, is determined to get money for the wall and immigration measures — and he is likely to balk at any plan that doesn’t give him a win on a signature campaign issue.
Advisers are also deciding whether it makes sense to put considerable effort into reviving the health care fight immediately, as Trump wants to do, and whether to delay tax reform for a month or so while handling other issues — a move that would dismay important outside constituencies. “Tax reform isn’t going to come out as soon as we first wanted,” said one senior administration official with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
A number of senior officials would quietly prefer to leave health care alone after a bruising fight that climaxed in Trump’s public clashes with McConnell. While some White House officials have worked quietly with governors on securing support for a state-based block grant plan, and others have worked with the Freedom Caucus on a repeal-only vote, there is little sign of momentum, senior White House officials said.
Trump wants health care done quickly, even as many in the Senate would like to move on. The president, who is combative, doesn’t like to be seen compromising — and often focuses on an issue only after he has lost and received the public sting. “He thinks if we don’t get health care done, we’re losers,” said one adviser who speaks with him often.
On Friday, the House Freedom Caucus vowed to push a repeal-only bill, which quickly secured support from conservative groups like the Club for Growth. Martin, the head of Tea Party Patriots, said she delivered more than a million signatures to the White House calling for the repeal of Obamacare. A bill would likely fail in the Senate, though, and take valuable time from the White House, which needs legislative wins by the end of the year. The Club for Growth said it would score lawmakers on the vote, a move meant to threaten them.
“We hear about repealing Obamacare from the grass roots every day,” Martin said.
For many in Trump’s White House, tax reform is the greater priority. Short and other senior aides have met with senators and important outside constituencies, like the network of groups backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
Tim Phillips, who leads Americans for Prosperity, one of the largest groups in the Koch network, said his donors are most focused on that, and outside groups say the administration has seemed far better prepared on tax reform than on health care.
“Our view is it’s all about tax reform,” said Scott Reed, chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Success would help turn the page on all the drama of the White House so far.”