President Donald Trump's political capital is drying up

Jeffrey Engel, SMU’s director for the Center for Presidential History, talks about the state of President Trump's political capital and his agenda in Congress.

By Susan Milligan
Senior Writer 

The man who claimed his financial genius made him the best pick for president of the United States is quickly losing the asset he desperately needs to fulfill his campaign promises: political capital. And the diminishing bank balance of presidential clout is threatening to derail much of what President Donald Trump promised his supporters he would do if given the Oval Office job.

President Donald Trump was already somewhat hamstrung, when it came to having the mandate and Capitol Hill allies needed for any commander-in-chief to get a legislative and policy agenda enacted. He didn't win the popular vote (a fact that so irritates Trump that he keeps repeating unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud to prove he really did win it), so he can't claim a clear popular mandate. He never served in elected office, let alone on the Hill, so he has not developed personal relationships that can make a critical difference on close votes. He's personally insulted lawmakers – including some in his own party – whose support he will need in a closely-divided Senate to pass legislation. But he had some built-in assets as well, including GOP control of both chambers of Congress and the passionate support of anti-establishment voters who were sick of the way things were going in Washington and willing to accept some early mishaps, if it meant shaking things up.

 But now Trump, just six weeks into his presidency, is depleting his political assets so quickly that nearly all items in his scattershot agenda are imperiled in Congress. The disclosure this week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with the Russian ambassador last year – after telling his own, then-colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had not done so – adds to Trump's troubles on the Hill. Leading Democrats have called on Sessions to resign, while even lawmakers in Trump's own party said Sessions should recuse himself from federal investigations of Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections.

"Congress doesn't like to be lied to. The lie is always worse than the crime. And when the lie affects national security, everyone gets offended," says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Party loyalists and voters might stand by a public official when it's a political or domestic scandal, Engel says, noting the Democratic congressmen who traipsed over to the White House to show support for former President Bill Clinton after he was impeached. But when the matter goes beyond the water's edge, the stakes are higher, he says.

"People are going to be willing to rally around their party's leader in a political crisis or scandal when it's a domestic issue," Engel says. "This reeks of treason. It's going to be very difficult for members of Congress to stand up and say, I think it's a good thing that we have the insidious influence of foreign [players] in our election."

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