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President Trump Ends 2018 With An Unsettled Administration


President Trump is heading into the end of 2018 with about as many things unsettled in his administration as he's seen all year. And that is saying something. As Trump has continued to push his campaign pledges from the border with Mexico to Syria, he's also lurched from crisis to crisis, many of his own making. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to look at where Donald Trump stands halfway through his first term and heading into 2019.

Hi, Mara.


KING: So it would be impossible to talk about everything that the president did this year, but there were some moments amid all the chaos.

LIASSON: Oh, there were. Donald Trump started 2018 with a head of steam. Remember; he had just passed a big package of tax cuts. The economy was strong. He made an unprecedented push on judges - got more of them on the bench than any other president thanks to Mitch McConnell. So by the goals he set out for himself, Trump was notching a lot of wins.

And I talked to Andy Card, who was the chief of staff for George W. Bush, worked for three Republican presidents, and he said, one of the great ironies about Trump is that he's been very successful from the point of view of conservative Republican priorities. But he has a tendency to step on his own successes.

Remember, he signed the criminal justice reform bill - big bipartisan accomplishment - but nobody paid attention because he was busy shutting down the government and dealing with Secretary of Defense Mattis' resignation. And Andy Card said also, at the same time that he's had these accomplishments...

ANDY CARD: He has driven a wedge in America, and we are more divided today than the day he got elected. And we were pretty divided on that day.

LIASSON: So division - divisiveness - is Trump's go-to political strategy. It's his tactic, and it's shadowed every single one of his accomplishments.

KING: Well, one good illustration of this came with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh when President Trump really leaned into the culture war. Let's listen to to one thing he said then.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of.

KING: So what was that about? Is this about keeping the president's political base loyal to him?

LIASSON: That's one of the most important things that drives Trump above all. And you saw that happen in the last couple of weeks. He was about to make a deal to keep the government open but then sat there, watched Fox TV and saw a whole host of his supporters - this isn't just Ann Coulter - one conservative after another was saying it is really important.

If he doesn't build the wall, he's not going to get re-elected. It turned out that his base took the promise to build the wall literally and figuratively, and he decided that it was worth shutting down the government. He needs to show his base how much he's willing to put on the line for this priority.

KING: So looking ahead to 2019, there are obviously going to be challenges in Congress. You know, Senate Republicans are making noise about foreign policy. House Democrats are ready to investigate after the midterms. Interestingly, as far as what we've heard in public, Trump does not seem to think that he's lost anything. Here he is the day after the midterms.


TRUMP: I think it was a great victory. I'll be honest. I think it was a great victory. And actually, some of the news this morning was that it was, in fact, a great victory.

KING: I mean, this really makes you wonder. How seriously is the president taking the challenges that he's going to face next year?

LIASSON: This is another area where he has really departed from past presidents. Losing seats in the first midterm of a president's first term is not unusual, but going on to say that it was actually a great victory or to criticize people - Republicans who lost, saying it was because they didn't embrace him strongly enough, indicates that he has no idea about the setback that he just suffered in the midterms.

And I talked to another former Republican White House chief of staff, Ken Duberstein. He was Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. And he summed up the challenges for a president after losing one house of Congress in the midterms, heading into his third year, and he said most presidents who go through this experience - there are certain lessons that they take away from it.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: They have to adjust or refine their modus operandi and that they have to figure out ways to govern and, at the same time, run for re-election. That's not an easy transition.

LIASSON: And what we've seen in the last couple of weeks is that Donald Trump really isn't making any kind of transition. These have been the most chaotic weeks of his presidency, the most peak Trump, but he's someone who wants to follow his gut and his instincts. He wants to be his own chief of staff. He doesn't really think he needs to consult with his military advisers. He even tweeted over the Christmas holiday, I am all alone in the White House.

And this is what's worrying his allies - Republicans in Congress and supporters outside of the White House. I - there are two different views that I hear from supporters. One is let Trump be Trump. This is what he ran on. There should be no surprises that he's doing this. Or from other supporters - that the wheels are really coming off of his presidency, and he doesn't realize it.

KING: So what is the calculation for the president as we look ahead to the next year?

LIASSON: Well, I think the president might be frustrated and angry at his press coverage. He's certainly been tweeting about that. But he is following his instincts. He recently said his gut is better than other people's brains. And here's how presidential historian Barbara Perry from the University of Virginia put it.

BARBARA PERRY: If you ask Donald Trump, how is this approach that you take to being president working for you, he would say, like gangbusters. And in many ways, he would be right and accurate. He's still got his base. What you're doing is working for you. It may not work for the country. It may not work for the world. But your base thinks it's working for the country and the world, and most of the people who voted for you will vote for you again.

LIASSON: So that is how Trump ends 2018. And he's looking forward to a new year where there will be divided government, Democrats with subpoenas, the market is dropping, the economy seems to be softening. Meanwhile, he's going to run for re-election with his former lawyer and former campaign chairman in jail. Bob Mueller continues his investigation. Republicans in the Senate are - seem more willing to push back against him on foreign policy. So lots and lots of challenges ahead as Donald Trump heads to 2019.

KING: So 2019 not likely to be a dull year?

LIASSON: Not likely to be a dull year.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.