WASHINGTON — After 77 days in office, President Trump finally got his first legislative win on Friday. All it took was upending a Senate tradition that’s been around for two centuries.
The Senate confirmed Judge Neil Gorsuch to become the newest associate justice on the Supreme Court by a vote of 54 to 45, after the elimination of the Supreme Court filibuster on Thursday — a rule that has roots in the very first Congress.
The vote, installing a conservative justice to fill the vacancy left by the 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia, offers a rare ray of light for Trump’s nascent administration, which has gotten off to a tumultuous start that even some supporters call a “rolling disaster.’’
Trump’s first 100 days — often a benchmark to assess new presidents — wrap up April 30, and so far his presidency has struggled. He has been burdened by investigations into his campaign’s possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election, the devastating failure to pass a long-promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and more palace intrigue than a Vatican court — including a highly unstable National Security Council that has seen multiple shake-ups as world leaders began testing Trump.
With his launch of cruise missile strikes against the Syrian military in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons on civilians, Trump this week began an aggressive new foray into foreign affairs that departs from his campaign rhetoric.
But more challenges remain on the domestic front.
Trump’s promises to reform the tax code and pass a $1 trillion infrastructure plan are far more complex than the health care fix that he was unable to deliver. Republicans have not developed any consensus on how to proceed on either of those big undertakings. They are on the agenda for later this year, but when, how, and if remain big questions.
As Congress departs this week for a two-week spring break, the GOP agenda remains in disarray.
“It is almost without precedent to see a president who has a majority in both houses of Congress be able to get so little done and be forced to rely on executive action,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
In terms of policy accomplishments, Trump is on track to rival the record of President James Buchanan, who is generally considered to be the worst US president, Engel said.
“Trump’s greatest accomplishment so far has been to preside over an institution that just lost the last bit of partisan civility and partisan respect,” Engel said, referring to the Senate rule change required to confirm Gorsuch.
Trump, of course, disagrees with negative assessments of his early days. And, perhaps just as importantly, Trump supporters around the country have tended to blame Congress or Washington in general instead of the man they helped elect in a historic upset last fall. That support could grow with this week’s missile launch.
“I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency,” the president said Thursday, miscalculating the tenure of his presidency. He’s been in office for 11 weeks.
The administration points to GOP use of the Congressional Review Act, which has allowed Republicans to unwind regulatory rules that President Obama put in place during the final months of his presidency. These have included eliminating Internet privacy rules and erasing a requirement that coal companies clean up waste.
Trump and his White House team would be well-served to study the keys to success with Gorsuch. A key difference between the Supreme Court nomination and other Trump initiatives that have floundered was that Trump himself kept a much lower public profile, staying out of the fray and resisting the urge to tweet explosive missives along the way.
“He kept quiet,” said former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a Republican. “Maybe he can learn a lesson from Melania [Trump]. You never see her, she says nothing, and her approval ratings are over 50 percent.”
He put aside personal differences with Kelly Ayotte, the former New Hampshire senator who withdrew her endorsement of him during the presidential election. Instead of holding a grudge, he tapped the well-respected Ayotte to be Gorsuch’s envoy on the Hill, where she got rave reviews.
Within the White House, Don McGahn, the counsel to the president and a former lawyer for the House Republicans, played a key role in the selection process and the rollout, according to two people familiar with the process. He has a government background, unlike many of Trump’s top people, and his stock has risen considerably with the president after delivering the win.
The White House also leaned on Rob Collins, the veteran Republican strategist who helped the party make major Senate victories in 2014, to help prepare Gorsuch for his testimony.
“The president said he was going to drain the swamp. What he didn’t realize is he needed some of us swamp people to help him figure out how to do that,” Lott said. “One of the lessons to come out of this, when you’re going to do something that high profile, you have to do it carefully.”
The White House also got coordinated support from outside groups such as the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which spent about $2 million on TV ads in 10 red states with Democratic senators to push to support Trump’s nominee.
“This is textbook case of how to win a Supreme Court nomination that will be studied by both sides of the aisle,” said Ralph Reed, who has close ties to Trump and is the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a top evangelical group. “Everyone has been saying that Trump needed a win, and . . . it’s a big one.”
Another crucial factor was Republican unity, which has proved elusive on other White House goals.
“From day one, and even before the election, people have been thinking about this,” said Ron Kaufman, a Republican strategist and Trump supporter. “It’s is a good example of everyone getting together in the same direction.”
Kaufman said that the administration misread the climate in the country when Trump issued an immigration ban for seven majority-Muslim countries, including Syria.
Trump based part of his campaign on inflammatory promises to close the borders to Muslims. Those statements have been cited in federal courts, where his travel ban has been put on hold as discriminatory on religious grounds and probably unconstitutional.
“Process matters. That’s the thing they’re learning,” Kaufman said. “There are a lot of very smart people in the White House. They either learn it or they don’t learn it. (Former president Jimmy) Carter was chaos from day one. And they never learned the process, which is why it failed.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.