Lindsey Graham this week summed up the way many of his Republican peers feel about President Donald Trump four months into his presidency, saying: “A lot of us are glad he’s leaving for a few days.”
The South Carolina senator is known for his witticisms, but he was making a serious point. After 120 days of watching Mr Trump careen from scandal to scandal, Republicans are increasingly worried that their control of the House, Senate and White House is producing few returns. GOP politicians privately vent that the biggest obstacle to achieving anything this year is Mr Trump, whose own lack of self-discipline has exacerbated a chaotic regime in the White House.
After reaching the 100-day mark without big legislative achievements, Mr Trump was jubilant when the House passed a bill to repeal Obamacare the following week. But that fleeting victory has been buried by a scandal over his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia that escalated this week into a crisis with the potential to undermine his entire presidency.
Charlie Cook, a political analyst who lived through the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon, said he has never seen the chaos that has played out between Mr Trump firing James Comey as FBI director 10 days ago and then lashing out at the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel this week.
“[Nixon] was listening to his advisers and his lawyers,” said Mr Cook. “This scandal is being handled just as chaotically as [Mr Trump’s] campaign . . . This is not the way a normal politician would react during a crisis.”
People close to the White House say Mr Trump is struggling to understand why his administration is mired in chaos. He is angry at how his communications team is handling the situation and is contemplating a staff shake-up when he returns from his first foreign trip, which will take him to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy for the G7, and Brussels for a Nato summit.
One person close to senior White House staff said that the conundrum is that Mr Trump “has to be on board” with a more structured process since “a lot of the wounds are self- inflicted”.
Mr Trump is frustrated with Sean Spicer, his press secretary who has been mocked on Saturday Night Live. He is contemplating reducing the number of televised press White House briefings while doing more press conferences himself, which worries some aides.
“Trump still seems himself as John Barron,” said the person close to the White House, referring to reports Mr Trump would call reporters in the past pretending to be a public relations executive named John Barron who was representing the New York property mogul.
Over the past two weeks, a shocked Washington has watched the sequence of events that began with Mr Trump firing Mr Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into links between Moscow and Trump campaign aides. Undercutting his staff’s initial explanation that Mr Comey was fired over his handling of a probe into Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump later said it was due to the “Russia thing”, sparking concerns that he could be accused of trying to obstruct justice.
That was followed by the revelation that Mr Comey claimed the president had told him to drop the case against Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser. After deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein appointed Mr Mueller to run the investigation, Mr Trump called the move a political “witch hunt”, using the same language that Nixon used to describe Senate hearings on Watergate.
Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, put a brave face on the way the Russia scandal was affecting Republicans’ ability to work with the White House on their legislative priorities this week, saying the party was “going to walk and chew gum at the same time”.
But few political experts are confident that the GOP can shepherd through big legislation while the White House is consumed by chaos and scandal. Asked about the chances for legislative victories on tax reform and infrastructure this year, Mr Cook said there were “none”.
“I am not sure I would call it a disaster area, but it is heading in that direction,” said Mr Cook.
Even without the Russia scandal, the tax reform debate illustrates how Trump advisers have had to adjust to an unstructured and impetuous president. Days after Steven Mnuchin told the Financial Times in April that he hoped to have a tax plan ready by August, Mr Trump interrupted an Oval Office meeting to call his Treasury secretary, according to a person familiar with the incident.
Reaching Mr Mnuchin on a poor mobile line, the president began by telling him to buy a better phone. As Mr Mnuchin explained what he was doing to formulate the tax policy, Mr Trump suddenly set a new target: he wanted a plan the following Wednesday with a corporate tax rate of 15 per cent. Mr Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, head of the national economic council, duly rolled out a bare-bones plan the next week.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment and Treasury declined to comment.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi