Trump’s overseas trip doesn’t stop storm brewing at home over Russia

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, for more on the president's overseas trip and the troubles he's facing back here at home, it's time for Politics Monday.

This week, I'm joined by Stu Rothenberg, senior editor at Inside Elections, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

And welcome both of you back to the program.

So, I was going to begin by asking you about the trip and how much that overshadows what's going on here at home, but just in the last few moments, we have seen that The Washington Post is reporting, Susan, that the president — this has literally just come out moments ago — asked intelligence chiefs, two of them, to push back against any story, any allegation of FBI collusion.

He asked both Dan Coats, who is the director of national intelligence, and Admiral Michael Rogers, who is the director of the National Security Agency. The Washington Post story says that both of them refused to comply. They both said it was inappropriate. They are not commenting on this story, but The Washington Post is running it as a headline.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: And this, of course, is entirely consistent what we have heard the president ask James Comey to do as FBI director, to try to help him with this kind of P.R. problems with this Russia investigation.

It's consistent with that and is one more example of how you can be on a foreign trip, you can be giving big speeches, but you cannot escape the cloud that is over your presidency when it comes to this disclosure after disclosure on this Russia investigation.

And that is going to be the case, I think, for the foreseeable future for this president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, we are starting to get the sense, Stu, that no matter how much we begin to talk about other things, the budget, which we did report on earlier in the program tonight, and of course the president's trip, that this Russia investigation and how the president and the White House handled it is just the story that keeps on unfolding.

STUART ROTHENBERG, Inside Elections: Right.

Well, Republicans complain that the national media is spending too much time on this subject and we should be talking about other issues, but this is the focus of attention for a reason. We're talking about the president of the United States and his aides' appropriate behavior, inappropriate behavior, illegal behavior. We don't know.

But this is a giant story. And saying, well, there are other issues, yes, and we should cover them. But this is certainly the story, the story du jour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean — excuse me — even on the trip, Susan, the president today confirmed when he was with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel that he, in essence, said, I didn't say the word Israeli when I talked about intelligence that I shared with Russian officials.

He in a way is keeping some of this alive.

SUSAN PAGE: This is one more self-inflicted wound on the part of President Trump, because he wasn't even asked this question. This was a question posed by an American reporter to Benjamin Netanyahu.

And the president, President Trump, jumps in to say, this is a bad story, I never said the word Israel.

Well, first of all, the stories at the time did not say he used the word Israel. It just said that he disclosed highly confidential intelligence issues.

Secondly, this confirms — in effect, confirms that Israel was the source of this intelligence, something U.S. officials have refused to do on the record. It does a third thing, puts a spotlight right back on the story on a day when you had a rather emotional and successful visit to Israel. Now that's been really overshadowed.

STUART ROTHENBERG: You know, these kind of trips have been used by previous presidents to — so that they go internationally.

This is the area that the president has most authority in, foreign policy, national security. Presidents look presidential when they're meeting leaders of other countries.

I noted that Richard Nixon took a 10-day, seven-country trip in June of 1974, and then he came back to Washington, went back on another trip to …

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is two months before.

STUART ROTHENBERG: … to the Soviet Union. Yes, the Judiciary Committee was — House Judiciary was meeting. And when he came back was three weeks later, and he was impeached.

This president cannot get out of his own way. Is that too strong a thing to say? He continues to bring back the focus on himself. And a trip is a good idea and presidents need to do that. But it's not going to make Americans forget about the underlying problem he has.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, do we know yet how much this is going to affect the president's substantive agenda? We were talking earlier with Lisa Desjardins about the budget proposal. We're going to hear more about that tonight.

We know the president, Republicans on the Hill very much want to pass a health care reform law. How is all this affecting that?

SUSAN PAGE: It does two things that are damaging. One, it distracts attention. So, you're paying attention to this, not to the details of the health care bill or what might be included in a tax cut package.

Another thing is, it starts to chip away at the president's approval rating. And that is important because members of Congress keep a close look at the president's approval rating to figure out how much they should fear him, how much attention do they have to pay to him, how much political clout does he have.

The president's approval rating today in the Gallup poll, which does a daily rolling three-day average, was 37 percent, which is a dismal approval rating for a president. And it's just a bit lower than it's been. It was about 40. It had been about 40 for a long time. It's beginning to get just a little bit lower. So, even among his core supporters, many of whom are sticking with him, he's seeing some attrition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

Stu, you have spent a lifetime studying members of Congress and how they think about how to vote and what they are going to do and their reelection prospects. What is the calculus for the Republicans right now?

STUART ROTHENBERG: If you tell me who is going to win the Montana special election later this week, and then the Georgia special election next month, I will have a better idea of what the impact is.

But I think Susan is exactly right. Look, there are Republicans and conservatives in safe districts that are going to stick with the president and are sticking with him, just as some Republicans stuck to Richard Nixon right to the very end.

But those Republicans in swing districts, those who worry about Republican turnout, Democratic turnout in districts or states that can flip, they are nervous. They will get more nervous. This is not really a distraction. It's kind of defining this presidency now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it going to take, though? Is it a drip, drip, drip …

(CROSSTALK)

STUART ROTHENBERG: No, I think it may simply be time.

It's funny. People in the national media talk — look at every poll as if one is going to show a dramatic turn in public opinion. The president has only been in office now four months. He hasn't been in long.

So, you give this another four months, eight months, and some of his supporters may start to take the criticism more seriously. Right now, it's easy for them to say, I voted for him. He's trying. It's the national media's fault.

But, four months from now, or six months from now, I think things might be different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Stu is right, Susan. The loyal Trump supporters, people from districts where people — and there was another story. I read another story just yesterday about this in Kentucky, several communities in Kentucky, where Donald Trump received high poll numbers, I mean, high vote totals, back in November. He is still very popular.

SUSAN PAGE: And, of course, the idea that he's being embattled by the national news media or among Democrats, that doesn't really hurt President Trump.

But what could hurt President Trump is if he doesn't deliver on the promises he made to these voters. And that would include bringing back manufacturing jobs, making their lives better, bringing down the cost of health care. Those are the things on which President Trump is going to be measured by his supporters.

And the fact that he's got this cloud of scandal over him makes it harder for him to deliver to them on those issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Politics Monday.

Susan Page, Stu Rothenberg, great to have you both.

SUSAN PAGE: Thanks.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks, Judy.

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