Trump faces tough return to Washington 'swamp'

Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump returns to Washington Sunday after a brief overseas respite, facing an enduring and intensifying storm over his campaign's contacts with Russia.

During two pomp-filled days in Paris and another two playing maitre d' to professional female golfers driving, chipping and putting their way around his Bedminster course in New Jersey, Trump was in his element.

In the French capital, Trump played the role of honored guest, wooed by new President Emmanuel Macron who was determined to reassert France's importance on the world stage.

The visit seemed -- and indeed was -- tailor made for Trump.

It was the presidency as he would no doubt like it, ceremonial, aggrandizing and shorn of its onerous security briefings and tedious policy debates.

Trump even got to attend a military parade of the sort he is rumored to have wanted for his own inauguration.

For a few days, the angry tweets and the rants against the media were largely gone.

In their place, more than a dozen effusive electronic missives that were part tourist postcard, part thank-you note to a cherished host.

Trump variously thanked Macron "for the beautiful welcome ceremony," for a "great evening" dining at the Eiffel Tower" and for "great conversations."

"It was a great honor to represent the United States at the magnificent #BastilleDay parade. Congratulations President @EmmanuelMacron!" Trump wrote in one tweet.

Trump's staff appeared to welcome the respite just as much as their boss, stealing away a few minutes for a late-night Parisian cocktail or Croque Monsieur.

But for staff, the release was tinged with a sense of exhaustion. The last few grueling weeks have seen them fly the president from Washington to Poland to Germany, back to Washington, on to Paris and then to Bedminster.

All the while, aides like chief of staff Reince Priebus have been chained to their phone trying to minimize the damage from new scandals at the same time as manage the passage of major legislation.

Simultaneous travel, scandal and lawmaking would be a massive challenge for even the most efficient White House, much less for Trump's understaffed, chaotic, besieged and backstabbing administration.

Their return to the "swamp" -- as Trump's camp nicknames the US capital -- is unlikely to bring much comfort.

- Welcome home -

In Washington, the Trump administration faces a fresh string of questions about contacts with a Russian lawyer and lobbyist, further raising the stakes in the federal investigation into whether Trump's team colluded with Russia to tilt last year's election.

Trump and most of his top associates -- from his son Donald Jr to son-in-law and close aide Jared Kushner -- have retained hard-charging defense lawyers.

The rolling storms -- like the Jupiter tempest captured this week -- have made life difficult on the face of planet Trump, without fundamentally altering its trajectory.

While investigations are sucking up vital oxygen in Congress, and lawmakers get asked about little else, there is so far little sign Russiagate is costing Trump votes.

His allies in Congress appear to be edging closer to repealing and replacing healthcare reform that was the signature legislative achievement of Barack Obama's presidency.

On Saturday Trump posted on Twitter a video in which he praised the Republican bill while denouncing Obamacare.

"I am pleased to report that we are very, very close to ending this healthcare nightmare. We are so close," he vowed.

Trump's popularity has settled at around 39 percent, according to opinion polls.

"About four in 10 Americans approve of the job Donald Trump is doing as president," said Gallup analysts. "That figure has not changed materially over the past four months."

But a failure to pass healthcare reform, tax reform or a massive infrastructure spending could prove a devastating blow, weakening so-far solid support among Republicans.

There are early signs that support may be ebbing.

Even some leading voices at Fox News, the cable network popular with conservatives which has been in lock-step with the administration, have expressed dissent about the administration's shifting explanations on Russia.

The last six months have seen Trump aides shift from denying any contact with Russians to dramatically raising the bar for censure-worthy behavior.

In light of Trump Jr's bombshell admission he met a Russian lawyer last year in a bid to get dirt on his father's Democrat rival Hillary Clinton, top aide Kellyanne Conway seemed to dramatically shift the goalposts.

Having once denied that any meetings took place, she recently complained that the standard should be "hard evidence of systemic, sustained furtive collusion."

That type of response prompted Fox anchor Shepard Smith to accuse the administration of "mind-boggling deception."

"Why all these lies? Why is it lie after lie after lie?" he asked.

If Trump's legislative agenda stalls and his core support begins to ebb, it will not only be a rough homecoming, but a hot, difficult summer ahead.


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