President Donald Trump has spent his week at his Bedminster retreat fine-tuning an aggressive fall agenda that could benefit his reelection chances in 2020 but imperil Republican congressional candidates in the midterms.
While keeping a light golf schedule, the president is using his “working vacation” — which has included rallies, fundraisers and dinners with donors and business executives — to test lines about potentially shutting down the government to get a border wall and turning up the trade war with China.
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Trump’s frenetic campaign schedule picks up immediately next week, when he’s set to travel to upstate New York to raise money for a vulnerable congresswoman. But interviews with a dozen administration officials, outside advisers and Bedminster visitors offered a portrait of a president continuing to grapple with balancing his responsibility to help Republicans hold onto a tenuous majority with his instinct to rile up the base with populist rhetoric and his longstanding “America First” promises.
“I think he feels the country’s future and the future of the world depends on him being able to do what needs to be done,” said GOP donor and New York grocery billionaire John Catsimatidis, a guest at Trump’s business dinner on Tuesday.
Trump’s respite has provided him hours of downtime, with aides sprinkling his comparatively sparse schedule with meetings and phone calls as he prepares to stump all fall for Republican candidates. He’s spent long stretches in high spirits, according to several accounts, gloating about the economy and gross domestic product, and riding high following recent ballot-box victories.
But Trump has found time to rage about the Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller and what he views as the unfair treatment of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is on trial in Virginia on charges of tax and bank fraud.
Trump’s mood has darkened during periods when the Russia story has dominated, according to close confidants. “Every day you wake up and it’s Manafort this, Manafort that. It’s crazy,” said one close adviser. “How do you get away from it?”
Trump “can’t miss” the media coverage of the trial, his attorney Rudy Giuliani added in an interview with POLITICO. “The only thing he keeps reiterating is he thinks Manafort has been treated in an unfair way for a guy who’s alleged to have committed a white-collar crime,” he said.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who golfed with Trump last weekend and had dinner with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, told an event hosted by the Greenville County Republican Party and radio station WGTK that the president brought up ending the Mueller probe “about 20 times.” Graham added: “I told the president, ‘I know you don’t like it. I know you feel put upon. You just got to ride it out.’”
But rather than focusing on upending the leadership of the Justice Department, as he did during his Christmas vacation at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Trump has been mulling ways to deliver on his iconic wall. The maneuvering, even if it leads to a partial shutdown, would reinforce to supporters that he’s fighting for border security. Among those encouraging him to follow his intuition is Stephen Miller, the senior policy adviser and immigration hard-liner who is orchestrating additional crackdowns ahead of the midterms. Miller declined to comment.
China angered Trump by retaliating on American tariffs with new duties of their own. He has been polling close associates about trade with China, while reinforcing his position that the rival superpower’s unfair trade practices must be curbed. The president indicated in conversations that he was not so much discussing the matter but seeking reassurance from those around him, particularly since he’s taken so much heat from Republicans in Washington over the escalating tensions.
At his dinner Tuesday for business executives, Trump allowed that “we’re in a little bit of a fight with China right now,” after raging on Twitter that the country has been spending a fortune on advertising and public relations “trying to convince and scare our politicians to fight me on Tariffs — because they are really hurting their economy.” Some inside believe he can “fix” trade deficits the same way he “fixed” taxes. And Trump is presenting the impasse as temporary, giving these people the feeling that he thinks it will soon pass.
White House aides and confidants have swept in and out of town. Trump has been speaking with his Cabinet, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and his trade team by phone. He’s also called Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel several times and talked to congressional leaders, with the conversations primarily focused on national security, trade and the midterms.
At Bedminster, Trump maintains a home on the campus complete with an office, and senior White House staff members meet once a day, usually inside the residence. As is common practice when the president travels, a larger office space inside the club is designed to replicate their secure workspaces in Washington. Essential and senior staff members stay at the club, with the others staying at a nearby Marriott hotel.
An aide noted that fewer people were able to take a vacation last August because chief of staff John Kelly had just started in the role and there was a considerable effort to get him up to speed and reorganize the West Wing. Another aide noted the White House also spent much of August dealing with the fallout from the president’s response to the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump has come to view Bedminster as relaxing because he can walk outside and see acres of rolling green hills. While the crowd is different from the high-society set at Mar-a-Lago, the scene feels familiar to Trump because so many of the members have been coming back for years. Guests talk about the venue’s low-key atmosphere, which was described as a couple of paces slower than Mar-a-Lago.
Officials said the president is spending time with the first lady and their son, Barron. Kushner and Ivanka Trump, also a senior adviser, also have been there, along with their children. In keeping with the working vacation motif, Trump did not golf on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, but on Thursday he hit the driving range with one of his grandkids, with photos of him practicing his swing and gesticulating from a cart popping up on social media.
Aides anticipate that the campaign trail will give the president a sustained chance to recharge among supporters and make inroads for down-ballot candidates in the party, whom he is telling people will be insulated by the strong economy.
“He loves the fight. He knows the people. He loves the game,” another outside aide said. “It gets him out of the office and doing meetings that he doesn’t want to do. Whether he’s going to turn the tide in these districts is TBD.”
Before rallying in Ohio for congressional candidate Troy Balderson, Trump’s team reviewed polling that had the Republicans trailing by 6. At Bedminster, allies said they were pleased with the results from fundraisers for House and Senate Republicans.
The vacation coincided with renovations to the White House, including in the West Wing, East Wing, Oval Office and Executive Residence. Trump explained the effort in brief remarks to reporters on Thursday, calling it a “long-term project” that was approved “years ago.”
“And I said, ‘Well, I guess this would be a good place to be in the meantime,’” he said. “So they’re doing a lot of work at the White House. I miss it. I would like to be there. But this is a good way of doing it.”
On Monday, he heads to the event for Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney in upstate New York, his first visit there since taking office. Unlike last fall, he isn’t planning to go into the city to his old office in Trump Tower.
“I think he’s too busy to miss New York,” Catsimatidis said. Trump’s Manhattan friends are grateful for it, he added: “I couldn’t take the traffic if he was in New York.”
Eliana Johnson, Darren Samuelsohn, Burgess Everett and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.