WASHINGTON — On gun control, criminal justice reform and now Syria, President Donald Trump is advancing policies this week that could appeal to voters far outside his much-talked-about political base.
The moves come after his Republican Party was handed a stultifying defeat at the ballot box in last month’s midterms and as his 2020 re-election campaign is coming into focus.
And they come as Trump appears to be backing down from his threat to shut down parts of the federal government over Congress' refusal to give him $5 billion for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The domestic and foreign policy maneuvers are converging partly on Trump's own timetable and partly as a result of the calendar. For example, the decision to declare victory over ISIS and withdraw from Syria was unilateral and announced without warning to Congress, while a ban on the bump stocks that allow semi-automatic guns to function as automatic weapons has been a year in the making.
But, while most potential Democratic presidential candidates have yet to announce their intentions, they represent a rapid expansion of Trump’s political bandwidth in advance of the 2020 election.
"It's certainly not bad to do those three things in terms of the broad political situation of the country,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic. “I just don't know that they’ll have all the impact that [Trump's allies] think.”
Wilson noted that the legal problems swirling around Trump from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and other federal and state investigations could easily overwhelm any edge he seeks with persuadable voters. And it’s certainly true that there’s a bloc of voters across the country so opposed to Trump that he won’t win their support no matter what policies he adopts between now and November 2020.
But the decision to withdraw troops from Syria — which drew heavy criticism from Republican foreign policy hawks in Washington who say that ISIS has not been destroyed and a power vacuum will be filled by U.S. adversaries — is a prime example of a policy Trump could use to appeal both to his own base and voters outside it.
"Fulfilling the promise … of severely limiting their ability to actually cause us harm is a big part of what he will be running on foreign-policy-wise," said a former Trump White House official who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the campaign.
Beyond that, the former official said, Trump is signaling something bigger to the American public — that he is "starting to bring Americans home from some of these wars and interventions that we’ve been involved in for years and years."
Though Trump acknowledged during the 2016 campaign that it would be difficult to quickly remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he had long called for a withdrawal from that country as a private citizen and he emphasized his desire to reduce the American military footprint across the globe as a candidate.
Wilson said Trump is taking a risk that a flare-up in violence won’t follow a troop pull-out.
"It seems like a pretty big gamble," he said.
Republicans on Capitol Hill reacted angrily to what they described as the surprise of Trump's Twitter announcement of a withdrawal.
But Trump had been telegraphing the move for many months.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” he said at a campaign rally in Ohio in March. “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”
While most of the polling on U.S. troops in Syria is old — from early 2017 — only 18 percent of those surveyed in a CBS News poll from March of that year supported having American ground forces there.
Likewise, the president is on safe political ground with the bump stock ban.
It will make some gun owners unhappy — and it is hardly enough to satisfy gun-control advocates — but it is a popular move and it is unlikely to cause a backlash against Trump among the gun-rights groups that have been some of his staunchest supporters. Polls have consistently shown that four in five Americans, and most of those who live in gun-owning households, approve of that policy.
It was Trump’s blessing that freed up the criminal justice package, which got 87 votes in the Senate Tuesday night and which has overwhelming public support. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had been reluctant to bring it to the floor with several of his fellow Republicans vehemently opposed to it.
At a Wednesday press conference, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of the most widely talked about potential 2020 presidential contenders, acknowledged the president’s role in securing the bipartisan legislation.
“We know this,” Booker said, “we wouldn’t have had a shot at this if it weren’t for the White House.”