'The White House is in disarray': Trump struggles to find 'easy win' after health-care dud

Most of Donald Trump's achievements so far have come via executive orders, proclamations and appointments. Lacking any legislative victories following the health-care bill implosion, tackling tax reform may not be a recipe for that kind of success.

Trump's first 100 days 'definitely subpar' legislatively, presidential historian says

U.S. President Donald Trump needs a victory after the American Health Care Act was withdrawn because it was headed for defeat in the House on Friday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Hungry for a win after his failure to close the deal on a new health-care bill last week, Donald Trump's announcement Monday of a task force to streamline government should have been a palatable bread-and-butter offering to his conservative base.

But instead of rave reviews, the administration received a bitter pill to swallow: Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the 36-year-old adviser tapped to lead the task force, will be questioned by a Senate committee investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election, including possible ties between Trump associates and the Russians.

Kushner came to the attention of the committee because of meetings he set up during the presidential transition with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, as well as a meeting with the head of a Russian bank on a Treasury Department sanctions list.

The committee news came hours after Trump's announcement of the White House Office of American Innovation, which will draw ideas about cutting bureaucracy from the business world.

Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, has volunteered to be questioned by a Senate committee looking into possible links between Trump's election campaign and Russia. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Without any major legislative victories in the first two months of his presidency, Trump's unveiling of the Kushner-led task force would seem to deliver on a popular campaign promise to run the government more like a corporation and cut red tape.

But news of Kushner's expected appearance before the Senate intelligence committee sucked the air out of the innovation announcement, analysts say.

"Now they create this innovation entity, and they put Kushner in front of it. But then it's like, 'Whoops!'" said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in South Dakota who studies the first 100 days of American presidencies. "The whole thing is tainted by Kushner having to go in front of the Senate intelligence committee."

Any political lift would have been welcome after the withdrawal of the Republican leadership's Obamacare replacement bill from the House of Representatives just hours before Friday's scheduled vote.

Legislatively, Trump's first 100 days are "definitely subpar" in Schaff's view. But if the administration found health-care reform too complicated, tackling Trump's next legislative priority — overhauling the tax code — won't be easier, he says.

 'He needs a victory'

Try as the administration might, there don't appear to be any potential "quick wins" to offset the recent setback on the central Republican wish to repeal and replace Obamacare, says former Treasury Department economist Martin Sullivan.

"The White House is in disarray, the president's popularity ratings are very low, he needs a victory," said the tax expert. "But to go to tax reform when you're thinking, 'I need to show people I'm a winner; I need an easy win'? That's the last place to go for an easy win."

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin wants to get tax reform done quickly, but that won't be easy, experts say. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Even if he's ultimately successful, Trump might not get to make a triumphant tax reform announcement until 2018. 

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said he plans to push for "comprehensive" tax reform before Congress goes for its summer recess in August. Fat chance of that happening, Sullivan says.

"The only way they could do that kind of a quick win is if they just paid total disregard to the deficit."

'Complicated and incredibly contentious'

Tax reform is a complex matter. There's a reason there hasn't been any significant tax-code overhaul since 1986.

Conservatives believe the promise of economic growth spurred by tax cuts will save the day.

"Tax reform won't be a quick fight; it won't be an easy fight. But it's a winnable fight," said David Burton, a senior fellow in economic policy with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think-tank.

Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer, who also specializes in federal tax policy, says Trump may be eager to show he's moving forward on issues that matter to the Republican Party, even if he can't achieve legislative success by eliminating Obamacare.

"If you think health care is bad; tax reform is even worse. It's both complicated and incredibly contentious," and demands the appeasement of many special interest groups, he said.

Democrats say they plan to filibuster the vote on Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch.

Meanwhile, Trump might also have to wait for the confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, as the Democrats have declared their intention to filibuster the vote. Although that wait could be cut dramatically if Senate Republicans choose to invoke the "nuclear" option to change the Senate rules and eliminate the filibuster, allowing Gorsuch's confirmation vote to proceed with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority.

Trump's best bet for a quick and easy win might have been the announcement of Kushner leading the new innovation office, but as Zelizer says, the Russia inquiry remains "the shadow that's loomed over this whole presidency."

'Everybody likes the idea'

Most of Trump's actions so far have come via executive orders, proclamations and appointments. Lacking any legislative victories, Trump's innovation announcement might have at least bought him some goodwill among the conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus who opposed his health-care bill.

The idea of running America like a business has long been a conservative talking point.

"There's a reason this keeps coming up: It's a very winning political argument. Everybody likes the idea, it sounds alluring to talk about reinventing the government," said Margaret O'Mara, author of Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections that Shaped the Twentieth Century.

O'Mara believes it's naive to adopt the language and metrics of the boardroom to try to improve how government operates. Still, she says, the formation of the innovation office is on message with Trump's campaign promise to reform government. (Never mind the irony of establishing a government office to cut government bloat.)

"Clearly, the rollout of this announcement is not happening the way the White House would have liked."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong