Many of the early struggles of Donald Trump’s presidency appear to be self-inflicted: a leader with little experience in government or politics, an administration with significant internal divides and a set of policy goals — such as rolling back the Affordable Care Act and blocking travelers to the United States from certain countries — that are complicated to execute.
But there is another huge factor affecting him: his opposition. Amid the intense swirl of things happening in Washington right now, there is near-constant criticism of the new president from all quarters. That makes it hard to tell exactly why some of Trump’s moves turn into full-blown controversies with protests, lawsuits and endless cable news coverage while other potential scandals peter out in a day.
Here’s one way you can tell what will become a problem for the White House: How many groups line up against the administration on a particular issue turns out to be a relatively good, semi-empirical way to gauge the level of difficulty Trump is in. Trump’s initiatives face resistance from a number of constituencies. But when several of these blocs band together, they cause stories to explode, forcing the White House to respond and often to shift direction.
Here are six of the most important blocs:
- The bureaucracy — The people serving in government positions not appointed directly by Trump. Think about the stories on Trump allies and their connections to Russia, which are often sourced to unnamed government officials;
- The courts;
- Democrats in Congress;
- The public — Polls show Trump has dismal approval ratings for a president in his first few months in office. That said, Republican voters generally approve of him. So in addition to public opinion generally, the public in this case refers also to organized groups that are drawing intense media coverage and demanding action from Congress. Think of the Women’s marches the day after the inauguration;
- The media — This refers less to entities such as The New York Times editorial board, which is left leaning and anti-Trump but would likely have been opposed to the policy goals of any Republican president. Instead, at least in the early stages of his presidency, Trump’s biggest challenges have come when a critical mass of coverage all focuses on one story. Think about when the investigative teams at the major newspapers (The New York Times and The Washington Post) and networks such as CNN are breaking news on the Trump-Russia connections, or when Trump is widely criticized for breaking with long-established norms, and
- Republicans in Congress — The House Freedom Caucus is best understood as anti-establishment and insurgent, rather than anti-Trump. But they are a challenge for him, nonetheless. And there’s a Trump-skeptic wing in the U.S. Senate, including Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona, both of whom criticized the president during the campaign and have objected to some of his proposals since he entered office.
Presidents have always had to grapple with most of these blocs. During former President Barack Obama’s tenure, conservative-leaning activists campaigned against the Affordable Care Act, courts blocked some of his key policies on immigration and climate change, and Republicans in Congress opposed his every move.
But Trump’s team, unlike the Obama administration, has publicly announced its intention to take on the press and the federal bureaucracy — so those two groups have had a more adversarial relationship with Trump as compared to Obama. And Obama, unlike Trump, could generally rely on members of Congress from his own party to back him. There was not a “Never Obama” wing of the Democratic Party.
So one way to look at Trump’s challenges is to evaluate how many of these groups are mobilized against him on particular issues. “Mobilized” is a judgment call, and there are borderline cases, so feel free to quibble with exactly where I’ve placed certain examples. But I think the rubric works: The administration is typically in good shape if it’s only fighting one or two groups (or zero), but start piling up the opposition and Trump gets in trouble.
With the intensity of polarization nowadays, this doesn’t happen often on important or high-profile issues, but sometimes Trump doesn’t meet any opposition. Trump nominated Jim Mattis as defense secretary, for example, and Mattis was confirmed 98-1 with opposition from none of the key blocs.
Most notably, at least so far, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is in this level: He’s met sustained, focused opposition only among congressional Democrats, which helps explain why he’s likely to be confirmed.
“The hearing was not top billing,” the Times wrote after the four days of consideration of Gorsuch’s nomination by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. The paper added, “Empty seats. Distracted senators. Non sequitur questions about fly-fishing and duck-size horses…. Finding oxygen in Mr. Trump’s Washington can be nearly impossible — amid the Russia inquiries, the health care push, the daily administration squabbling.
“This week, Democrats got thrown,” the paper concluded.
So far, as Democratic strategists acknowledge privately, the party has struggled to create intense, passionate opposition to Gorsuch, or even a big public debate.
“It’s a Beltway issue, an elite issue,” said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor of government who has written extensively about the 2009-10 tea party mobilization. She argued that even people who are fairly engaged in politics are not that interested in whether Gorsuch is confirmed without a Democratic filibuster or if Senate Republicans change the chamber’s rule to ensure Gorsuch gets a seat on the high court.
But with the health care battle now over, liberal groups such as the Indivisible Project are pressing their members to flood senators’ offices with calls to try to stop Gorsuch. There may still be time for mobilization against Gorsuch, since the vote on his confirmation is not scheduled until Friday.
Similarly, Trump’s decisions to roll back, stop or delay a number of Obama executive orders and actions have been opposed by Democrats but not really by the other blocs.
The media has cast Ivanka Trump’s getting a West Wing office and a security clearance and Tillerson’s flying to Asia without the traditional State Department press corps as breaks from norms. But even congressional Democrats don’t seem that fixated on those two issues.
Going it alone doesn’t get you very far.
The nomination of Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department falls here. Sessions met opposition from the media and Democrats in Congress, but not from the other blocs. The major newspapers published deeply reported stories on Sessions that cast him as having a controversial history on racial issues. Democrats in Congress hammered him. But the Sessions’ nomination for attorney general did not galvanize the public as some Trump policies have, according to Democratic Party strategists working on efforts to broadly oppose the president. (They did not want to say this publicly.) And the Republicans in Congress, perhaps because he had been a colleague, strongly defended Sessions. The courts and federal bureaucracy didn’t weigh in. Sessions was confirmed along a mostly party-line vote.
Another of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, falls in this category, too. EPA employees protested Pruitt. They were joined by Democrats on Capitol Hill but not really any of the other four blocs. Pruitt, too, was confirmed mostly along party lines.
Finally, I’d put the bulk of Trump’s exaggerations, misleading statements and lies in the Level 2 bucket. The media is constantly highlighting them — in effect, leading a campaign to force the president to stop ignoring facts and making up things to support his underlying arguments.
“Trump’s precedent-busting mendacity and the brazenness of his behavior in fabricating truth claims and denying established facts is the factor that has led to a more direct, confrontational role” for the press, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, told me.
He added, “Flatly contradicting the president in news stories is now pretty routine. That is a change.”
Congressional Democrats typically join the media in casting Trump as unusually dishonest. But generally, the courts, the federal bureaucracy, the public and Republicans in Congress are not pressing this issue. And Trump, it’s worth noting, hasn’t shown any increased inclination to stick to the facts.
Now we’re getting into the levels at which Trump has some trouble on his hands. Sessions and Pruitt, for example, didn’t sail through the Senate, but their confirmations were never truly in doubt. On the other hand, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to run the Education Department, almost didn’t make it.
The press covered DeVos not simply as a conservative on education policy, but as someone who seemed somewhat unqualified and uninformed on key issues. The DeVos vote came after Senate Democrats had angered party activists by not aggressively contesting the first slate of Trump nominees, including Mattis.
“We saw 15 Democrats vote for Mike Pompeo for CIA director, and in response many of those senators found local Indivisible groups and others outside their district offices, telling them to stop rubber-stamping Trump’s nominees,” said Ezra Levin, executive director of Indivisible Project. “Two weeks later, zero Democrats voted for Betsy DeVos. Constituent pressure has stiffened the spines of progressives in Congress.”
Skocpol said that a major difference between DeVos and Sessions is that teachers and their unions are a well-organized constituency in local communities across the country and were strongly opposed to DeVos.
Whatever the cause, DeVos stirred more opposition calls to some senators’ offices than Trump’s other cabinet picks.
The Republicans in Congress mostly supported DeVos. The courts and federal bureaucracy didn’t play a role, and so DeVos ended up with three of the six groups working against her — Democrats and the media, like Sessions, but also more intense public pressure. She was confirmed, but in a very close vote that really seemed like it could have gone the other way.
“That’s it for that,” Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told me on the evening of March 13, right after the Congressional Budget Office’s initial report on the American Health Care Act came out.
Yarmuth predicted that the CBO projection — 24 million fewer people would have insurance under the AHCA than Obamacare — would push nervous Republicans away from the bill.
Before the release of the CBO report, the AHCA was being covered by the press largely as a right-left fight, not as an investigative story like Russia or an unusual policy aimed at a marginalized group, like Trump’s travel ban. The courts were not involved, nor was the federal bureaucracy.
But even pre-CBO, the legislation already had three levels of opposition. The Freedom Caucus was complaining about the bill, as were Trump-skeptical GOP senators, such as Collins and Kentucky’s Rand Paul. Democrats in Congress were heavily mobilized against it, and there was an active movement of people showing up at town halls hosted by Republican members of Congress and defending Obamacare.
“AHCA not only galvanized opponents on the left and the right, it also spurred nonpartisan organizations — AARP, AMA, AHA — to oppose the bill,” said Kevin Griffis, who was a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration during the implementation of Obamacare and has been working with a group defending the law called the Protect Our Care.1
“AARP has a lot of bodies to throw at an issue, and the other groups have relationships with members,” he added.
The CBO report was written, like all of its work, in a technical, just-the-facts manner by its staff, a group of federal employees who are not selected by the president and are committed to taking a nonpartisan approach to evaluating legislation.
But the report was truly a game changer. It immediately increased the number of Republicans in Congress opposed to the bill, and polls suggest that public opinion hardened against the AHCA after the CBO report’s release. Members of Congress said that calls to their offices were overwhelmingly from opponents, not supporters, of the legislation.
“275 oppose vs 4 support #ObamaCareLite. Phone calls to my office from constituents over last two weeks,” Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, an early GOP opponent of the AHCA, wrote on Twitter three days before Republicans effectively abandoned the bill.
In effect, the public, congressional Democrats, a group of Republicans and federal workers killed the legislation.
Four blocs also emerged to contest Trump’s claims that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. The claims were unusually outlandish even for Trump, which led some Republican members of Congress to slam them in blunt terms, joining Democrats who were doing the same. The wiretapping allegations also implied federal employees were involved, essentially forcing FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, neither of whom is a Trump appointee, to testify publicly that this wiretapping did not happen. The media highlighted Trump’s claims as another break of norms by the president, with the Times running a news story headlined, “Fact Check: Trump Misleads About the Times’s Reporting on Surveillance.”
This all helps explain why this Trump falsehood has broken through beyond all the others (also, that it was about a former president). The media, the bureaucracy, Democrats and Republicans were all aligned against Trump on his wiretapping claim accusations.
The Russia controversy around the Trump administration is multipronged: the FBI investigation about connections between Trump’s team and the Russians; the congressional inquiries into Russian meddling in the 2016 election; and the question of whether the administration will shift U.S. foreign policy in a more pro-Russia direction.
Those two notions are opposed by at least five of our six blocs.
- McCain and other Republicans are very skeptical of Putin and oppose a shift toward an alliance with Russia.
- Democrats are predictably whipping up the issue, suggesting the scandal around Trump’s and his allies’ connections to Russia is worse than what has become public.
- The media smells blood on Russia and is consistently publishing stories on the issue.
- Those stories have been fueled by bureaucratic leaking. A combination of the media and the bureaucracy essentially forced out Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. “There have been so many sources inside the government who are willing to talk, willing to leak, the press can be ‘oppositional’ just by cultivating these sources and doing its normal thing. The Russian story is being driven by sources willing to talk,” said Rosen.
- Polls suggest the public strongly supports (66 percent of Americans, according to a recent Quinnipiac survey) some kind of formal, independent investigation of Trump, Russia and 2016.
So right now Russia registers as a Level 5 problem for Trump. It could, however, reach Level 6 if the courts get involved. And there are signs the judicial branch already is. Comey’s testimony at a hearing in the House on the Russia controversy hinted at the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as FISA. But formal judicial approval of the Russia investigations has not been publicly confirmed.
And obviously, if one of Trump’s allies (or the president himself) were charged with a crime in the Russian controversy, that would formally involve the courts.
We’re at peak opposition now, and Trump has really only reached this level once so far: his first executive order temporarily barring immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries and blocking refugees.
- Republicans didn’t like it. Many criticized its execution, and McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska — all Trump skeptics during the campaign — criticized the initial travel ban’s contents.
- The public didn’t like it. Opposition overall wasn’t overwhelmingly against the ban, but a passionate group of citizens were outraged by it, showing up at airports around the country to protest the order.
- Those protests, in turn, seemed to mobilize Democrats in Congress to strongly oppose the measure.
- Government workers also registered their opposition: Hundreds of employees of the State Department signed a memo attacking the policy.
- And the media covered all of it in a wall-to-wall frenzy. That media coverage, moreover, was very skeptical of the policy, highlighting the ban’s botched rollout. The Times, in the headline of a news story (not an op-ed) suggested that the ban had “unleashed global chaos.”
- In this context, federal judges, who can wait months to take up cases, immediately issued rulings constraining and eventually blocking the travel ban.
The wholesale opposition forced the Trump administration to back down — something it rarely does — and redraft the executive order. The second order received less fanfare than the first, but it’s still currently blocked by the courts.
Trump can overcome these blocs. The president could unilaterally lift the executive sanctions Obama imposed on Russia for interfering in the election. And while the travel ban has been blocked by federal judges so far, it could eventually be upheld legally and implemented. But with so many blocs protesting a presidential action, the White House must be determined to pursue it.
Obama pushed through many levels of opposition at times, although it’s hard to find many of his policies opposed by five or six of these blocs. The original Obamacare essentially had Level 4 opposition: A faction of Democrats in Congress disliked the Affordable Care Act, polls showed it was unpopular and Republican activists and GOP members of Congress had mobilized against it. Once Obamacare was enacted, federal courts took up a number of cases questioning the legality of parts of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 punctured a key plank of the ACA by saying states could opt out of its Medicaid expansion.
Through all of this, the Obama administration persevered on the ACA, and the law is for now one of Obama’s defining accomplishments as president. Similarly, the Trump administration, by writing a second version of the travel ban, is suggesting that they are determined to enact this policy.
For Trump’s team, particularly chief strategist Steve Bannon, all this opposition is not surprising. Bannon has said that Trump was elected to break up the traditional powers of Washington and create a “new political order,” not break bread with the establishment.
So this strong opposition to Trump is probably not going away. The big question is whether he and his team will overcome the opposition and push Trump’s proposals through, keep being defeated or, alternatively, recalibrate their goals and strategies so that Trump is not constantly battling with so many major forces at once.
Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.