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Analysis: A destroyer on the campaign trail, Trump struggles to build legacy as president

A self-described "counter-puncher," President Trump won with a campaign defined by what he was against - "Crooked" Hillary Clinton, bad trade deals, illegal immigration, the media. But as he crosses a critical marker early in his presidency, he has so far failed to advance or even articulate much of what he is for, and enters the summer recess with no major legislative accomplishments.

President Trump is headed to his August vacation with no major legislative successes.
President Trump is headed to his August vacation with no major legislative successes.Read moreALEX BRANDON / AP

WASHINGTON — President Trump made his name as a New York builder.

In politics, he has mostly been a wrecking ball.

A self-described "counterpuncher," Trump won the White House with a campaign defined by attacking what he was against — "Crooked" Hillary Clinton, bad trade deals, illegal immigration, the media. But as he crosses a critical marker early in his presidency, Trump has so far failed to advance, or even articulate, much of what he's for.

Trump and Congress left town for a summer recess last week with no major legislative accomplishments — even though the time between Inauguration Day and the August break often represents a critical window for legacy-defining laws. What's more, Trump's combativeness had frayed ties to fellow Republicans, with GOP lawmakers growing irritated that the president had turned his slashing style on them.

"He loves the battle," said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, but "he doesn't know how to translate those skills into how to sell an idea."

Instead, Trump's presidency has mirrored his campaign rallies: furious, caustic, thrilling to his supporters, and animated by opposition. He has pushed a wall and a travel ban to block immigrants, urged the destruction of Obamacare, and fed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord into the presidential shredder. Of the dozens of bills he has signed, many of the most consequential have been aimed at tearing down regulations imposed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. He has relentlessly attacked the mainstream media and any critics. To his base, it all represents progress.

Trump also put conservative Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, an achievement that could influence law for a generation.

But he has failed to push through the kind of signature bill that would proactively put his imprint on policy.

"He has not built any Trump Towers, if you think about it that way," Zelizer said. "The biggest thing he has done is taken down some of the towers Obama built."

Trump's marquee legislative effort — his push to repeal and replace Obama's health law, the Affordable Care Act — failed.

He vigorously attacked Obamacare but showed little interest in crafting or promoting an alternative that could unify the GOP and win over voters. Trump instead spent much of the run-up to a crucial Senate vote assailing one his closest allies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"We lost health care in part because we lost the messaging debate, and that's partly our responsibility, but the president has to be involved in that too. He's got the biggest megaphone," said Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.). "We need him talking about it all the time, because it builds support and it reassures members and pushes them in the right direction."

Said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), "I can't think of an example I can cite for you where the president constructively built a strategy, built a coalition, and executed on it that was genuinely bipartisan or went beyond merely carrying out some initiative that was already underway." Even credit for Gorsuch, Coons argued, belongs with the Senate GOP, not Trump.

Before his first summer recess, Obama passed an economic stimulus, appointed a liberal Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, and got the ball rolling on his namesake health law. George W. Bush got both chambers of Congress to pass major tax cuts and initial versions of his "No Child Left Behind" education plan.

The biggest legislation Trump has signed was a bipartisan bill imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea — which he opposed and attacked.

"Congress could not even negotiate a healthcare bill after seven years of talking," he said in a statement explaining that he would nonetheless sign it for the sake of unity. "I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress."

On Twitter the next day, the counterpunching president blamed Congress for poor relations with Russia.

There were signs last week that in constantly finding new enemies to skewer, Trump was taking a toll on his own political prospects. Republicans chafed at his treatment of Sessions, once one of their own, and hit back over his comments on Russia.

"I was shocked by that," Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) told the Associated Press. "Because relations with Russia are in a bad place, and it's entirely because of Vladimir Putin."

Coons said the attacks on Sessions "genuinely affected the way in which many of my colleagues view the president."

On the way out the door, two Republican senators — South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and North Carolina's Thom Tillis — prodded Trump's most sensitive nerve, introducing bipartisan bills to limit the president's power to remove the special counsel leading the investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election.

Trump still has time to rack up accomplishments — though midterm elections loom. Republicans are hoping to pass a sweeping tax overhaul this fall, and there are signs that the White House and Capitol Hill are working more closely together on that push.

It could be the biggest tax rewrite since Ronald Reagan did it — after months of campaigning for the idea and selling it, Zelizer said.

Trump, fueled by Twitter and drawn to the fight of the moment, has so far shown little inclination to do the same.