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Trump on shaky ground as critical week in Washington begins

The shortest presidential reset in American history has set the stage for a critical Washington week in which Donald Trump's role and relevance will face perhaps their toughest test yet.

Mr. Trump reacted to a disastrous first week of 2018 – an imbroglio over an insider account of a dysfunctional White House followed by a graphic public dispute with a onetime top strategist and a Category-5 Tweetstorm – by mounting an extraordinary public-relations drive that included an open negotiating session with both allies and critics, new bipartisanship initiatives and fresh though contradictory notions about an ambitious overhaul of American immigration policy. And with Stephen Bannon driven in to the wilderness, perhaps the presidency had reached some form of stability – and normality.

Then he described Haiti and some African nations last week as "shithole countries" and instantly the reset was reversed and the President reverted to form.

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This stunning reversal comes just as the U.S. capital is girding for vital decisions on keeping the government functioning beyond Friday and keeping young immigrants in the country. The result: fresh uncertainties in Congress about creating a working majority for these critical issues and renewed uncertainties in the country and around the world about Mr. Trump's outlook and character.

The tectonic plates of American politics continue to shift violently: With a government shutdown looming this week, suddenly a President who was at the centre of things by mounting an impressive political offensive finds himself at the periphery and on the defensive at a poignant time, with the United States marking the birth date of the slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday.

Many of Mr. Trump's putative Republican allies have scolded him for remarks that they described, variously, as "unacceptable," "inappropriate," "abhorrent and repulsive" and "insulting and destructive." Even without the confection and contrition of the brief Trump reset – as with many Trump initiatives, it lasted only a handful of days – there were great obstacles for the administration, great unresolved internal hostilities and great political challenges.

There remains uncertainty about immigration and the fate of the President's vaunted border wall – the next hot-button issue on the Washington agenda, central to the Trump constituency – and there remains combativeness inside the White House.

In a message e-mailed to supporters Saturday, Mr. Trump said, "Now it's a new year, and I'm ready to make 2018 the GREATEST year of American prosperity and strength this country has ever seen." But he faces perhaps even greater obstacles today than when he took the oath of office almost exactly a year ago.

Mr. Trump was not, to be sure, the first president to seek a new start, although his initiative came earlier than other chief executives' initiatives; most of these undertakings have occurred late in presidential terms, when crises mounted and when the country grew weary, or contemptuous, of presidential decisions and style. Even so, the White House statecraft and stagecraft during a raucous week – when the two Koreas negotiated and the two American political parties vowed new efforts at co-operation – seemed yanked from the standard U.S. political playbook: a president seeking a fresh start intended to sweep away chaos and criticism.

But that was swept away by one comment on the origin of American immigrants.

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By contrast, some presidential resets have been enormously successful. Bill Clinton undertook such efforts twice, both with success. The first came shortly after his Democratic Party lost control of Congress for the first time in four decades and he was forced to plead that the presidency still was relevant. The second Clinton reset came after he was impeached in the House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate in 1999 and yet managed to carry on almost as if the impeachment process, undertaken only twice in U.S. history, had never happened.

"All presidents have some moment when they have to confront the political reality that they have had a substantial setback," Michael D. McCurry – who, as Mr. Clinton's press secretary, was part of both Clinton resets – said in an interview. "But we are in uncharted waters with this guy. At the end of the day if you have a president who doesn't conform to anything near to the usual, there's no regular order to go back to."

But as an important week opens, the political landscape of today's Washington is even more unpredictable.

Last month's election in Alabama reduced the Republicans' advantage in the Senate to a slim 51-49 and, with two GOP giants – Thad Cochran of Mississippi and John McCain of Arizona – ailing, the party's ability to control events on the floor has diminished substantially. That speaks to the possibility that some bipartisan initiatives might be undertaken, perhaps with the President's infrastructure program, perhaps even on immigration if the chiding that Mr. Trump has received nudges him into a compromising mood.

The New Year's holiday signalled the beginning of an election year when a third of the Senate and the entire House will be contested in November balloting, and, traditionally, little of importance occurs in Congress while its members focus on their own political survival and are preoccupied with personal fundraising efforts. Their attention is on saving themselves, not on buttressing a president, particularly one suddenly relegated to the sidelines.

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