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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

One year after Trump victory, both country and president face huge challenges

A year since Donald Trump won the presidential election, only 37 per cent of US voters approve of his performance — the lowest rating for any post-war president at nine months in office 

US president Donald Trump, pictured here delivering a speech at the opening of a welcome dinner hosted by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on November 6, 2017, has the lowest job approval rating of any post-war president at this point in office. Shizuo Kambayashi / Reuters
US president Donald Trump, pictured here delivering a speech at the opening of a welcome dinner hosted by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on November 6, 2017, has the lowest job approval rating of any post-war president at this point in office. Shizuo Kambayashi / Reuters

In his victory speech last November, US president Donald Trump called on Americans “to bind the wounds of division” and “get together as one united people”. One year on, however, Mr Trump is leading an ever more divided country and presiding over a chaotic presidency, with senior members of his own party speaking out against him and the lowest job approval rating of any post-war president at this point in office.

Buoyed by the success of his populist election campaign and a team around him that held disdain for Washington and establishment politics, from the off Mr Trump was positioned to clash with the political elite. The president's supporters and critics agree that his first year in office has so far marked a departure from those of previous administrations in its appointments and day-to-day operations.

After less than two months in the job, Mr Trump was already facing a number of major setbacks: the collapse of his first travel ban, the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the recusal of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, from a justice department investigation into Russia’s role in the US election. Frustrated, the president moved in the direction of confrontation, firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), James Comey, in May, only to prompt the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to oversee the Russia probe.

Leaks, chaos and infighting inside the White House leading up to the failure by Congress in July to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), a major Trump campaign promise, forced a complete change in direction for the administration and a reshuffle of the team. More than 16 senior resignations have taken place since Mr Trump took office, including his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and strategist Steve Bannon. Homeland secretary General John Kelly replaced Mr Priebus as chief of staff at the end of July, and since then has attempted to enforce discipline and structure inside the White House.

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But although Gen Kelly succeeded in limiting access to who Mr Trump sees and what he reads, he has not been able to change the direction of the presidency or its temperament. Mr Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia where an anti-racism protester was killed by a suspected white supremacist after neo-Nazis organised a rally there, and, later, his online spat with the National Football League over players who protest during the National Anthem have exacerbated racial divisions within the country, according to a Pew poll, and sunk the president’s approval numbers.

The findings of an ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Saturday show that Mr Trump is “underperforming expectations and lagging behind his predecessors, with the lowest job approval of any postwar president at this point in office”.

A year since his election victory on November 8 last year, only 37 per cent of US voters approve of Mr Trump’s performance, “the lowest for any president at nine months in office in polling dating to 1946”, the poll found.

Al least part of Mr Trump's problem looks to be his failure to make reality the promises he made on the campaign trail. According to the poll, 55 per cent of Americans say the president is not delivering on his major campaign promises, up sharply from 41 per cent in April.

In Congress, "it's not clear what [Trump] wants and that makes it difficult for leadership on the Hill to work with him", said James Thurber a professor of government at the American University in Washington. Mr Thurber pointed to the failure of the administration to repeal ObamaCare or pass immigration or tax reforms during its first year.

Mr Trump has picked fights with his own party in Congress, trading insults with senator Bob Corker on Twitter and ridiculing senator Jeff Flake during a rally in Arizona in September. Both Mr Corker and Mr Flake have announced that they will not seek reelection next year, the latter delivering a scathing rebuke of the Trump presidency last month in a speech to the senate announcing his retirement. Their seats had looked to be under threat by challenges from more right-wing Republican candidates.

"The way you are elected fundamentally influences the way you behave," Mr Thurber said, referring to the highly divisive nature of the 2016 presidential election campaign.

"Even though you have a unified party government (majorities in both chambers of Congress), with a very conflictual situation, it's hard to co-operate sometimes — as we've seen with president Trump.”

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In parallel with an increasingly divided Washington, Americans in general are becoming more divided, according to the findings of a Pew Research Centre poll released last month.

While the schisms between Republicans and Democrats on traditionally divisive issues of government, race, immigration, national security and environmental protection “reached record levels during the Barack Obama’s presidency, in Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger”, found the annual poll.

When asked whether they agreed that racial discrimination was the main reason for the lack of social mobility among African Americans, 71 per cent of Democratic respondents agreed, in comparison to only 24 per cent of Republicans. On the question of immigration and whether it strengthens the country, only 14 per cent of Republican respondents agreed — the lowest number in the national survey since 1994 — compared to 64 per cent of Democrats.

One thing that seems to be going right for Mr Trump, however, is the economy. Unemployment is at its lowest rate in 16 years, 4.1 per cent, with the president's supporters crediting him.

Writing in the conservative New York Post on Saturday, business columnist Jonathon Trugman described Mr Trump’s first year as one “that has been tremendous for the US economy”.

Mr Trugman attributed the rise in the stock market by 29 per cent in a year to “Donald Trump’s implementation of pro-growth policies and regulatory rollbacks through executive orders, which restarted the US pro-business heartbeat”.

But although Trump has so far shown great agility in overcoming political crises and scandals, the one major cloud that has refused to go away since the election is the Russia probe. Accusations of his campaign's collusion with Moscow to obtain damaging information on his democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, began only days after Mr Trump won the presidency and last month led to the indictment of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and two former aides. A proposed trial date of May 7 for Mr Manafort and former aide Rick Gates, as well as possible charges to come against Mr Flynn — who quit after weeks of speculation over his links to Russia — and his son point to a long-drawn legal fight. Worryingly for Mr Trump, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that nearly half of Americans (49 per cent) believe he likely committed a crime related to Russian interference in the election.

Ken Gude, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, said the Russia investigation poses a real threat to Mr Trump.

“(Russia investigation special counsel) Mr Mueller has this leverage and each new revelation has only added to the picture of a deep connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian influence operation that puts the Trump presidency in peril,” he said.

But it appears too early to write the president off just yet; after all, his unpredictability and tendency to attract scandal saw pundits write him off during the election campaign — and then be proved wrong on November 8.