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Trump Seeks to Alter Course After Missteps on Impeachment, Doral

Justin Sink

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump will try to turn the corner this week after one of the most calamitous stretches of his presidency but heads into that next phase weakened by self-inflicted missteps that have left him on the defensive.

Trump had aimed to use a partial trade deal with China and a U.S.-brokered cease-fire in northern Syria to change the subject from impeachment, and demonstrate that he was still a consequential actor on the world stage, able to rise above the House Democratic attacks that he has described as a “coup.”

Instead, he’s drawn fire from his own party on his handling of Syria, where he gave tacit approval for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to mount a military operation against former U.S. Kurdish allies. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote an op-ed criticizing Trump for the move, and generals have lined up to criticize him.

The Chinese, meanwhile, damped his claims of victory on trade by suggesting the trade deal touted by Trump wasn’t finalized, and its exact status remains unclear.

The surest evidence of Trump’s weakened state was his late Saturday reversal of the decision to hold the next year’s Group of Seven summit at his Doral property in Miami -- a move that led even some die-hard Trump fans in Congress, including Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, to say he’d gone too far.

Trump’s first public appearance of the week will be late Monday morning, when he heads a meeting of his Cabinet. Often such events turn into contests of which official can offer the most effusive praise for Trump; the latest one could be more somber.

It could also put the spotlight on his embattled acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Some of Trump’s closest associates are gathering names of possible replacements for Mulvaney, who may end up taking the fall for a flat-footed approach to the impeachment inquiry and for not giving his boss sharp enough insight.

Mulvaney delivered a blow to Trump’s impeachment defense on Thursday by publicly admitting -- only to backpedal hours later -- that the White House held up millions of dollars in aid for Ukraine in order to force a politically motivated investigation in the former Soviet republic.

He made that admission as part of a news conference to announce the news that Trump Doral Miami had been chosen to host the 2020 G-7 summit of world leaders. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Mulvaney said that he and the president had spoken Saturday, and that Trump had been shocked by the negative reaction to the choice of Doral.

‘Unforced Error’

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, among those seen as potential replacements for Mulvaney by some of Trump’s close associates, termed the Doral incident “an unforced error” by the White House. Others listed as possible successors include former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and veteran political operative Wayne Berman, now a senior managing director for government relations at the Blackstone Group Inc.

Trump is expected to spend the week promoting Turkey’s cease-fire in northern Syria, counting on the survival of the fragile accord. Yet the temporary pause in hostilities, which expires Tuesday, was reached in part to undo what Trump unleashed along with Erdogan. The president’s Republican allies in Congress have savaged the administration’s approach.

Erdogan’s actions will define the next stage of the operation, an uncomfortable spot for a U.S. president who commands the world’s most powerful military. “We will continue crushing heads of terrorists if they don’t withdraw by then,” Turkey’s leader said on Saturday.

One of Trump’s fiercest critics on Syria policy, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, reversed his position over the weekend and instead offered praise, saying the cease-fire was working and that the president was “thinking out of the box.”

Still, Graham and Democrats in the Senate said late last week they would continue pressing for a measure sanctioning Turkey’s leaders, financial institutions and energy sector, as well as bar any U.S. firms or individual from buying the country’s sovereign debt despite the deal struck by Trump.

Pence’s Speech

Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday will deliver a speech on China, potentially highlighting “phase one” of a tariff truce that doesn’t address key differences on trade and could still fall apart. It’s also a truce made necessary after over a year of Trump-led brinkmanship with Beijing, raising import levies on Chinese goods and threatening various other actions.

Trade turmoil unleashed by Trump has dented the U.S., Chinese and global economies, creating an unwelcome headwind going into the 2020 election. The president needs strong growth as he revs up his campaign, but the International Monetary Fund this week predicted the opposite.

Pence’s speech carries risks of its own. About a year ago he delivered a notably hawkish speech on China, and the latest address was rescheduled from June to avoid antagonizing Beijing while the two countries were looking for ways to restart trade negotiations.

Impeachment Inquiry

In all, the distractions may do little to slow the torrent of negative news from the Democratic-led House impeachment investigation.

As more officials defy the White House and troop up to Capitol Hill to testify, a growing number of Republican lawmakers have started to equivocate in their support, and more Americans are backing Trump’s removal from office.

Fifty percent of Americans now support his impeachment while 44% oppose, according to the polling average tabulated by FiveThirtyEight, which also estimated Trump’s approval rating to 41.5%.

A parade of current and former Trump officials have already detailed their concerns about his shadow foreign policy in Ukraine, and the procession will continue this week. It will include Ukraine envoy William Taylor on Tuesday, and Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department, and Office of Management and Budget Associate Director for National Security Programs Michael Duffey on Wednesday. Others will follow on Thursday.

As impeachment dominated last week, Trump was also blasted repeatedly by many Republicans over his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. The House overwhelmingly passed a resolution, boosted by the votes of 129 Republican members, condemning Trump’s decision.

Trump’s support among Republican voters and lawmakers has been showing cracks. Little-known Representative Francis Rooney of Florida became the first House Republican to express openness to voting to impeach Trump. The two-term lawmaker, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, also announced he won’t stand for re-election.

‘Declining Demographic’

Rooney told CNN on Sunday that he feared the Republican Party, under Trump, is “self-sorting for a declining demographic” of “elderly people, rural people” that will damage it far into the future.

Trump last week was even ridiculed by his former defense secretary, James Mattis, who lampooned the president’s multiple Vietnam War medical deferments in a speech to the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York Thursday night.

“I earned my spurs on the battlefield,” said Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general. “Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”

--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu, Ros Krasny

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