Trump looks to refocus his presidency in address to Congress

President Trump
President Trump's allies hope he will use a prime-time speech Tuesday to move beyond the distractions and self-inflicted wounds that have roiled the White House.
Evan Vucci | AP file

Updated: Feb. 28, 7:33 a.m. | Posted: Feb. 27, 7:03 p.m.

With his first address to Congress, President Trump has an opportunity to refocus his young administration on the economic issues that helped him get elected. His allies hope it will help him move beyond the distractions and self-inflicted wounds that he has dealt with so far.

Trump's advisers say he will use his prime-time speech Tuesday to declare early progress on his campaign promises, including withdrawing the U.S. from a sweeping Pacific Rim trade pact, and to map a path ahead on thorny legislative priorities, including health care, infrastructure, and military spending.

"We're going to spend a lot more money on military," Trump told "Fox & Friends" in an interview aired Tuesday, saying he could stand to see even $30 billion more than what's being recommended.

"We're going to get involved in negotiating. We're going to be able to get, I think, a lot more product for a buck and I'm going to be very, very serious about it," he said.

The White House said Trump has been gathering ideas for the address from the series of listening sessions he's been holding with law enforcement officials, union representatives, coal miners and others. Aides said he was still tinkering with the speech Monday night.

Republicans, impatient to begin making headway on an ambitious legislative agenda, hope Trump arrives on Capitol Hill armed with specifics on replacing the "Obamacare" health care law and overhauling the nation's tax system, two issues he's so far talked about in mostly general terms. More broadly, some Republicans are anxious for the president to set aside his feuds with the media, the intelligence community and the courts, which have overshadowed the party's policy priorities.

"Results aren't going to come from that," said Judd Gregg, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire. "Results are going to come from driving the policies he said he would do."

The pressure from Republican lawmakers makes this a critical moment for a new president who ran for office on a pledge to swiftly shake up Washington and follow through on the failed promises of career politicians.

While most new presidents enjoy a honeymoon period, Trump is saddled with record low approval ratings — just 44 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. His most sweeping executive order was blocked by federal courts, sending advisers scrambling to write a new travel and immigration directive, which the president is expected to sign on Wednesday.

Morale is also plummeting among some White House staffers following a string of leaks that have left aides questioning each other. On Sunday, Politico reported that White House press secretary Sean Spicer had sprung surprise "phone checks" for members of his communications team after details from a staff meeting were made public.

Trump said in the interview Tuesday that he "would have handled it differently than Sean. But Sean handles it his way, and I'm OK with it."

In public, Trump has continued to speak about his presidency with his usual confident bluster, declaring that there's "never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." But he's privately vented frustrations to friends and associates, particularly about what he sees as the ineffectiveness of the White House's communications efforts and the scattershot nature of his first weeks in office.

In the Fox interview Tuesday, Trump gave himself an overall "A plus" for effort, but conceded, "In terms of messaging, I would give myself a C or a C plus."

Trump recently complained to one associate that the White House was trying to do too many things at once and none of it was breaking through. He told another associate that the White House had lost control of the story surrounding Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser after misleading Vice President Mike Pence and others about his contacts with Russia.

The White House looked to be finding its footing for a stretch last week, beginning with Trump's widely praised rollout of Flynn's replacement, Lt. General H.R McMaster. On domestic issues, the White House largely stuck to its script, focusing on manufacturing and the budget. Fewer aides appeared on television, part of an effort to apply some message discipline to a White House that has frequently contradicted itself.

One of the most notable changes was made by the president himself, who scaled back his use of Twitter for a few days, particularly in the pre-dawn hours.

One aide said the reduction in Trump's early morning tweets was a result of his ending his habit of watching "Morning Joe," the MSNBC show hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, longtime friends of the president who have been critical of some of his early moves.

Brzezinski said Trump made similar claims of avoiding the TV during the campaign. "Then I would see him and Joe talking and he would say 'Joe, you know I really watch every day,'" she said.

The aide who told the story about Trump and early-morning TV insisted on anonymity in order to discuss internal White House dealings. So did other advisers and associates cited in this story.

By the end of last week, the White House was back in the throes of some of the same sideshows that had overshadowed the policy issues Trump advisers have insisted they want to focus on. The president doubled down on his media bashing during a free-wheeling speech to conservative activists. Questions about his advisers' contacts with Russian intelligence agents were revived by revelations that chief of staff Reince Priebus discussed the matter with high-level FBI officials, in the midst of an investigation into those contacts.