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Trump's New Tone Wins Praise, But Only For 24 Hours

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President Trump walks on the South Lawn

President Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. In the same week as his address to Congress, Trump faced a new controversy — over his attorney general’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Trump got generally positive reviews this week for his speech to a joint session of Congress. But that was quickly eclipsed by news of more undisclosed contacts between Trump associates and the Russian government.

Stepping on its own good news cycle has been a recurring pattern for this administration. The White House had less than 24 hours to bask in the positive coverage of Trump's speech before the Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had contact on two occasions last year with the Russian ambassador. Sessions failed to tell lawmakers about those contacts during his confirmation hearing.

That prompted a chorus of calls for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of Russian campaign meddling, and some calls for him to resign.

The story dogged Trump on Thursday as he visited an aircraft carrier in a Virginia shipyard, overshadowing the president's call for increased military spending.

Sessions' announcement late Thursday that he would recuse himself might have tamped down the negative news. But Trump revived the story himself Friday afternoon, with an angry tweet about a 2003 public meeting between Vladimir Putin and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer.

"One of Donald Trump's greatest weaknesses is that he's such a good counter-puncher, he often hits himself," said Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush's White House spokesman.

Fleischer thinks Trump would be better off focusing on his own economic agenda rather than responding to every critic.

Of course, some of the president's most ardent supporters like his combative approach. As far as they're concerned, the more Democrats come after Trump, the better they like him.

"They're just poor losers," said Gail Anderson, attending a Trump rally last month in Melbourne, Florida. "I am so glad we have someone in there now who cares about America."

But merely nursing his fans' grievances may not be a winning formula for Trump.

"If the Trump presidency is only about keeping his base, he's not going to be a very successful president," Fleischer said. "If the Trump presidency is about keeping his base but then growing his support across the country because he's going to get things done that he promised, that's where he's either going to rise or fall."

The White House only hired a communications director two weeks ago to look beyond the daily news cycle and craft more substantive messages. When it comes to policy, though, it appears much of the shaping is still taking place on Capitol Hill.

Congressional Republicans are happy to have a president who will sign GOP tax cuts or an Obamacare repeal bill. But many would like to see Trump show a little more message discipline.

"I've been pretty candid with him and all of you that I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last month. "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing."

Trump came out of the presidential campaign with little in the way of detailed policy. And most of his inner circle has no government experience. In a rush to look busy, the White House has tripped over itself on measures like the now-suspended travel ban.

Fleischer's advice is to slow down.

"The power of the presidency is a tremendous power," Fleischer said. "But it depends on getting your facts lined up and your ducks in a row. If Donald Trump does that, he can be a very successful president. But he's got to master these inside pieces."

That's a lot tougher than giving a one-hour speech.

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