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Witcover: Offensive president on the defensive

As a result of his deplorable personal behavior and inept political performance, President Donald Trump has dug himself into an unprecedentedly early hole. His crude, insulting and false assurances, and his demonstrably inept policy initiatives on immigration and health care, have already taken much of the wind out of his sails.

The new president's overblown observations about his persuasive talents as a super salesman, deal maker and fixer have swiftly come crashing down around him. In his striking early setbacks, the advantage of Republican control over all three branches of the federal government has been neutralized by the determined independence of the judiciary and of Congress, trumping the president's bold use of executive power.

Early in the new administration, federal judges in two states blocked Mr. Trump's executive orders placing temporary immigration bans on people from six Muslim countries. Then, last week, the House of Representatives rejected his effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, thanks to an unruly Republican majority.

The failure of Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to herd a majority of resisting GOP cats to support Mr. Ryan's health-care replacement bill revealed the hollowness of the new president's self-declarations of greatness.

Mr. Trump, the supposed master of negotiation, conspicuously failed to close the deal, having left the health care bill largely to the speaker to patch together. Late in the game Mr. Trump summoned House Republicans to the White House or to his Florida retreat, but the effort fell flat, and he finally agreed with Ryan to abandon the repeal-and-replace bill.

In a political world in which perceptions can take on outsized proportions, Mr. Trump's campaign boast that he would repeal and replace his predecessor's Affordable Care Act on the first day of his presidency has magnified his failure. He then doubled down by blaming the Democrats, who predictably marched in lockstep against him.

At the same time, Mr. Trump allowed speculation to linger about the Russian hacking interference in the American election, and about his ugly allegation that Barack Obama had wiretapped him at Trump Tower.

Astonishingly, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, secretly went to the White House and showed Mr. Trump supposed evidence of such spying without sharing it other members of his committee.

Not surprisingly, the ranking Democratic committee member, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, strongly implied that Mr. Nunes had handed Mr. Trump material with which to justify his accusation, and called for an independent commission to take over the existing investigations of the Russian hacking and possible collusion by members of the Trump administration.

Amid this bag of confusion and incompetence, Mr. Trump said he was finished trying to salvage the revamping of health care. But the next day, he indicated he might yet be willing to work with the Republicans who had deserted him, as well as with moderate Democrats, to try to fix Obamacare after all.

In all, the weekend events left Mr. Trump reeling, even as he announced that his son-in-law, fellow real-estate magnate Jared Kushner, would lead a new White House Office on Innovation, which would marshal top business executives to infuse fresh approaches to governance.

It smacked of chief White House strategist Steve Bannon's nationalist "deconstruction of the administrative state" scheme. Perhaps it was rolled out as a diversion or a Band-Aid on all the president's self-inflicted wounds.

With Mr. Trump's favorable rating in the Gallup Poll dropping fast, to a low of 36 percent, he again resorted to Twitter to lay the blame on others, principally conservative Republican groups like the House Freedom Caucus, the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation.

Through White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on Fox News, he absolved Ryan and praised him as having "worked really hard," but the speaker obviously took a political hit for failing to keep enough fellow Republicans in line behind him.

The bigger loser, however, was Mr. Trump himself, as his mask as an unparalleled deal-maker suddenly fell away.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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