WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is telling friends and aides in private that things are going great — for him.
Some reasons: He’s decided that a key witness in the Russia probe, Paul Manafort, isn’t going to “flip” and sell him out, friends and aides say. He believes Robert Mueller, who heads the investigation, can be crushed, if necessary, without being fired. Sweeping tax and regulatory cuts will juice the economy and get him re-elected in 2020, he is predicting. He thinks he’s learned how to handle the dysfunction of Congress. And he’s even come to like the White House, the bad plumbing and drafty halls notwithstanding. “I love this place!” he told one friend.
In other words, as he prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the president is very pleased to report that the State of Donald Trump himself is nothing short of fantastic.
“He called to congratulate me on how brilliant and prescient I was to tell him to run for president,” said one friend, who asked not to be identified, laughing at the thought. “What he was really doing was flattering himself by flattering me. But for him, it was a long and very enjoyable monologue.”
Trump has yet to sell the country on the value of his stewardship.
His first-year job rating is the worst of any president in modern times. Scholars are comparing him to James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, the two most inept embarrassments in the history of the presidency. Polls show that the country is deeply divided and dispirited about its future. Even allies condemn his racist rants and juvenile Twitter feuds with pop stars. A best-selling book, quoting former adviser Steve Bannon, depicts him as a childish dimwit who goes to bed early to watch cable while gobbling cheeseburgers.
But interviews with staff and friends who talk to him regularly (most speaking on background to be candid) yield a picture of a man who, after a disastrous start and at an age when most Americans are retiring, now thinks he is hitting his stride in the job.
The new confidence comes primarily from good economic numbers — he is, after all, a businessman of a kind — and passage of the tax bill.
“You can’t overstate how important the tax bill was,” said Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a Trump friend.
It not only will accelerate growth, it gives the president a sales pitch about leadership that he has and will take on the road all year, especially because he adores flying on Air Force One. “He loves all the pomp and circumstance and the salutes,” said another friend.
But the confidence also comes from darker places: From a tighter feedback loop of loyal aides who survived the temper tantrums and firings of the first year; from the kind of self-delusion that only a master salesman is capable of (salesmen are the most gullible customers); and from a year of successfully dominating the news and changing the rules to suit his cut-throat, disruptive methods.
There is more of that disruption ahead.
Sources say that Trump has adopted a two-track strategy to deal with the Mueller investigation.
One is an un-Trumpian passivity and trust. He keeps telling some in his circle that Mueller — any day now — will tell him he is off the hook for any charge of collusion with the Russians or obstruction of justice.
But Trump — who trusts no one, or at least no one for long — has now decided that he must have an alternative strategy that does not involve having Justice Department officials fire Mueller.
“I think he’s been convinced that firing Mueller would not only create a firestorm, it would play right into Mueller’s hands,” said another friend, “because it would give Mueller the moral high ground.”
Instead, as is now becoming plain, the Trump strategy is to discredit the investigation and the FBI without officially removing the leadership. Trump is even talking to friends about the possibility of asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to consider prosecuting Mueller and his team.
“Here’s how it would work: ‘We’re sorry, Mr. Mueller, you won’t be able to run the federal grand jury today because he has to go testify to another federal grand jury,'” said one Trump adviser.
The president also thinks he has figured out how to deal with Congress. The Obamacare “repeal and replace” effort failed because he left the matter in the hands of Congress, only to find that the leaders there — especially Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — had no detailed plan and were too tied down politically to come up with one.
The tax bill passed, the president believes, because he set the parameters of the deal and let the lawmakers figure out how to get there.
“Health care was zero involvement; tax was about 30 percent involvement,” said one friend, referring to Trump’s role. “That is what he will do on immigration and infrastructure.”
Trump has developed a taste for the bargaining when he can tell himself that he is acting like the closer in a real estate deal.
Above all, he likes the action — any action.
“You have to understand that you are dealing with a guy whose most fundamental, minute-by-minute fear in life is of boredom,” said a friend. “He’s decided that the presidency is the best way in the world not to be bored.”
Howard Fineman is a contributor to NBC News.com and a news analyst for NBC News/MSNBC.