WASHINGTON — Donald J. Trump the deal maker heads into the autumn of his first year in as weak a negotiating position as any president in modern times — desperate for a victory yet hardly near consensus on any major priority, still able to dominate the national conversation but so far incapable of translating that into action.
A summer of tumult marked by staff shake-ups, legislative failures, intraparty feuds, a racially inflammatory controversy and a nuclear-edged war of words has left him at odds with his own Republican Party and supported by barely a third of the American public. The list of daunting challenges has only grown with little sense of how he plans to tackle them beyond Twitter storms and declarations of determination.
As Congress returns to town on Tuesday, the president faces weeks of hard negotiations to overhaul the tax code, raise the debt ceiling, keep the government open, finance his border wall, and secure relief and reconstruction money for areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, he plans to throw another polarizing issue on the docket by threatening to scrap President Barack Obama’s program allowing younger illegal immigrants to stay in the country unless Congress acts to save it within six months.
“Legislatively, September may be the longest month of the year, with several must pass items that face an uphill climb,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist. The president’s decision to push the immigrant program to Congress “only makes that harder, on an issue that for years Republicans have struggled to make any headway on. The question is whether this was a strategic decision by the White House.”
His vaunted deal-making skills could also be put to the test in foreign policy as he decides how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling while separately seeking to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And he may alienate America’s traditional European allies if he tries to scuttle Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran by declaring Tehran out of compliance over their objections.
Rather than making friends to accomplish these goals, Mr. Trump has alienated some of the very allies a president would normally rely on. As he pressures North Korea to curb its nuclear program, he has belittled South Korea for “appeasement” and threatened to tear up its trade deal with the United States. As he lobbies lawmakers to back his legislative priorities, he has castigated Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and other Republicans crucial to passage.
While his approval ratings remain mired around 35 percent, Mr. Trump’s allies argue that he had a better summer than the Washington conventional wisdom would suggest and that he has a path forward. They contend that after the fights of early August, the president took on the mantle of a national leader with a vigorous and visible response to Hurricane Harvey, and that cleaning up the devastation may prove both a rallying point and a strategic leverage.
“It may sound counterintuitive, but the president heads into September with a bit of wind at his back,” said Michael Dubke, who served as his White House communications director. “Harvey was handled well, tax reform is back on track, the debt ceiling showdown will be pushed to a later date and while there are no good choices in North Korea, the president’s national security team is second to none.”
Republicans are talking about tying hurricane relief money to the debt ceiling increase, sweetening a vote that their own conservatives typically resist with action that they presumably would find more appealing. If that gets the perennially difficult issue off the table, the president’s allies said, it could make it possible for him to focus on the tax code. It may still be difficult for Mr. Trump to win as much money for his border wall as he wants, but even partial financing could be portrayed as a victory.
The president’s decision to target Mr. Obama’s program for young illegal immigrants, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, will open the fall on a divisive note. But his advisers hope that delaying the effect by six months will force Congress to step up and put the program on a firm constitutional foundation.
While Republicans feel burned by Mr. Trump’s attacks on Mr. McConnell and some of their colleagues, some said they have little choice but to find a way to come together.
“We have to work with the president,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC last weekend. “I think it’s a mistake to get in a fight with the president. It’s not a mistake to disagree when you disagree; it is a mistake to suggest that somehow this president, who was elected just as the Constitution prescribed, and has the responsibility to lead the country, that somehow we need to not work with this president.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Trump will host a group that has been dubbed the Big Six to discuss his tax overhaul — Mr. McConnell; House Speaker Paul D. Ryan; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Gary D. Cohn, the president’s national economics adviser; and Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the Republican chairmen of the tax-writing committees. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump will host another White House meeting with Mr. McConnell, Mr. Ryan and their Democratic counterparts, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California.
Mr. Trump has long boasted of his art-of-the-deal negotiating skills and part of his appeal in last year’s election was the hope that he could use them to finally break through a paralyzed capital. “Deals are my art form,” he once said on Twitter. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals.”
His first seven months in office have yet to produce any big deals, a failure highlighted most notably by the collapse of an effort to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care program and replace it with a Republican-authored version. Allies said Mr. Trump’s approach to negotiations, however, is to hold out for the best deal possible until the last moment, so it is too soon to judge.
“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward,” he once wrote. “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.”
But those who have studied his career in real estate and business said that it has been marked by as many failed deals as successful ones. He bought an airline that failed. He bought a football team in a league that collapsed. He filed for bankruptcy protection multiple times.
“If you look at his record, there are a lot of deals that didn’t work out,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “So if you think about the true record of performance, he is very good at promotion and creating the idea that he is a deal maker, but not very good at making actual successful deals.”
In the end, some Democrats argue that Mr. Trump’s very weakness may yet prove to be a boon. Since legislating entirely with fellow Republicans has yet to yield the results Mr. Trump had hoped, he may have more incentive to work with Democrats on areas where they could find agreement, particularly infrastructure and the tax code. Democrats would also like to work on legislation stabilizing the Obama health care markets.
“I’m hopeful that the president has come to see that one-sided governing led by extremists is a recipe for failure,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey and co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus that includes 43 House members from both parties frustrated by inaction.
“It’s clear that it’s not just our side of the aisle that has raised issues,” he noted. “But we have a responsibility to govern, and I believe that.”