WASHINGTON — The scene in the White House was eerily reminiscent of the movie “The Untouchables.” The only thing missing was the baseball bat.
Playing the Al Capone role, President Donald Trump invited all 52 Republican senators to lunch Wednesday at the White House so he could threaten vengeance and chaos if they did not quickly produce “repeal and replace” legislation to sweep away Obamacare.
In Don the Don fashion, he ominously noted the presence in the room of a “couple of my friends” ― who “might not be very much longer.” It wasn’t clear whether he meant they would soon no longer be in the room, be his friends, be in the U.S. Senate or what.
Publicly threatening an entire political party — ostensibly your own — and all its Senate members is generally not the way to get things done in Washington. Even so, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (whom the president has blamed for the health care fiasco) agreed to try. Next week he will ask — beg — his GOP colleagues to let him bring a fully amendable “clean repeal” bill to the floor. If it gets there, anything could happen.
The threat-and-beg maneuver could fail and backfire, which could leave the president and his party in an even deeper hole. That would fit his pattern. More than any other trait, Trump has shown a gift for making things worse for his own administration, for the once-respected institutions of public life, and for America’s standing as leader and beacon of democracy.
His is a stillborn presidency so far: a chief executive flailing in the job, presiding over an understaffed administration and faction-ridden White House under investigation by a special counsel, with few legislative or other policy victories to show for it.
His job-approval rating is the lowest of any modern president at this point.
“There is really no parallel in the modern era,” Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the presidency, told me. “This is almost like the early Republic, when Congress would be in town for the Inauguration in March and then leave until December. Except now they’re in session — though they might as well not be.”
President John F. Kennedy only narrowly won election in 1960, and early on, young and inexperienced, he confronted fierce opposition within his own Democratic Party, said historian and author Evan Thomas. “But he got a tax cut through,” he added. “I can’t think of any modern president who was so rebuffed by Congress.”
Trump’s Red Lunch with the senators displayed everything dysfunctional about his presidency at the six-month mark: the isolation, the cynicism, the policy ignorance, the brute rhetoric, the cluelessness about how to accomplish (as opposed to merely destroy) things in governance, the egotism, the lust for combat for its own sake.
As a result, the bragging list is short. A half-year in, Trump’s substantive legislative victories include … getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed, though even that was only after McConnell bulldozed a more collegial bipartisan procedural tradition. The president got seed money for his Mexico border wall, too, but it’s unclear whether Congress will go along with more funding.
Most of the rest is administrative demolition, using his own executive powers and those of the few underlings he has had nominated and confirmed to roles in still largely understaffed agencies. Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, begun the process of renegotiating NAFTA, and given underlings full rein to loosen regulations of banks, labor relations, women’s rights, voting rights, civil rights, environmental issues and protection of endangered species.
The only major set of rules that have been tightened are on immigration.
There’s no doubt that the president’s clout and freedom of movement have been restricted by the legal investigations swirling around him. Other administrations have been enveloped by scandal investigations, but none so quickly and so throughly as his.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller and three congressional committees are expanding probes into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to sway the 2016 election, and into whether Trump & Co. tried to obstruct investigators. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, son Donald Trump Jr. and former campaign manager Paul Manafort are to testify before two of the Senate panels next week.
Maybe that is why the president is playing so much golf and setting a new (low) standard for avoiding reporters’ questions. Since inauguration he has held exactly one full press conference, a modern record.
Central to Trump’s failure so far is his salesman’s contempt for the facts. On health care, he didn’t bother in the campaign — and hasn’t bothered since — to confront the fact that abolishing Obamacare is actually politically difficult and substantively cruel. That is why the Democrats and the former president designed it that way!
The main promise of the campaign was a fraud, and more Republicans knew it than were willing to admit it at the time, or even now.
Trump should have known better.
Second, his penchant for overselling even his more plausible promises has come back to haunt him. You can’t do anything overnight with a few phone calls or without congressional and/or court supervision, whether it’s lowering trade barriers, cutting taxes, pacifying North Korea, or building highways and bridges.
Bullying might work from time to time — it might work now — but not in the long run. Publicly searching for pet candidates to run against legislators in your own party, a new favorite Trump tactic, is also dangerous, especially when those legislators may some day have to vote on, say, whether to issue investigative subpoenas.
Richard Neustadt’s famous dictum that “the presidency is the power to persuade” may seen antiquated, but Trump is risking all by assuming that his base will throw out sitting Republicans in primaries in red districts and states.
The same applies within his own White House, where Trump gives free rein to his designated intimidation wing, led by Steve Bannon, to sow insecurity and division. The result is scorpions in a bottle, full of leaks and with no clear unified message for the country.
He will continue to attack the GOP, Congress, the media, the courts, investigators, (non-existent) hordes of fraudulent voters, immigrants, Democrats, liberals, denizens of Washington and you name it.
That is the atmosphere in which the president feels most comfortable, and which he will try to use to achieve his idea of success: survival.