Trump: The Scramble
Weekly, daily, indeed sometimes hourly, we have trouble believing what we see coming out of the Trump White House. It can be difficult to turn our gaze from the stupefying parade of announcements and events and tweets and leaks—and leaks, and leaks—that show us a White House at once wholly undisciplined while trying to impose an ideological discipline upon the nation’s capital that finds no modern precedent in either party.
One can select a day almost at random and quickly work up a list of four or five developments that defy belief. Let’s take Friday, February 24, which began with the president speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting in the Washington suburbs, where he repeated and intensified his earlier charge that the news media are “the enemy of the people” (even as he avowed, naturally, that “nobody” loves the First Amendment more than he). A little later that day, The New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, The Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed were blocked by White House aides from attending a briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The three major networks were invited, as were right-wing outlets like Breitbart News.
Those two events would have been quite enough, but then, late in the day, a pair of potentially explosive news stories broke, one from the Associated Press describing a draft report by analysts at the Department of Homeland Security arguing that nationals from the seven nations included in Trump’s January 27 travel ban did not in fact constitute a threat to national security, and another from The Washington Post about potentially improper efforts by the White House to counter Russia-related stories. This second story was particularly powerful, in that it showed the White House trying to enlist members of Congress and the intelligence community—which Trump has so regularly impugned—to deny reports tying the White House to the Kremlin. Both were part of the ceaseless flow of news leaked by insiders trying to advance or block particular schemes brewing in this or that faction of the administration.
Somewhere in there—March 1, to be precise—there was one day of normality, the day after the president’s address to a joint session of Congress, when he refrained from ad-libbing about the “failing” New York Times or what have you and managed, for a solid hour, to resemble a typical president. Then, the next night, The Washington Post broke the story that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had perhaps perjured himself at his confirmation hearing under questioning from Minnesota Senator Al Franken—who has emerged, by the way, as a serious and important opposition leader—and the carnival was back in town.
It is spectacle such as we have never seen, but attention must be trained not solely on the White House. Just a few short weeks into this administration, and already it seems clear that the most important question historians might be asking twenty, fifty, seventy years from now will be not about Trump but about the Republican Party—how the Republicans could have permitted this. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and all the rest of them surely know that Trump isn’t fit to be president. They surely understand the danger of giving him the enormous war-making authority a president has. They have it in their power to block things like Muslim bans, which to a person they have at one point or another declared to be un-American.
Yet they have obliged Trump since the campaign—criticizing him here and there, when it didn’t really matter, but when it mattered talking as McConnell did in the following cringe-inducing exchange with Martha Raddatz of ABC’s This Week. This interview took place in late January, at a crucial moment when the country was awaiting the Ninth Circuit’s decision on the travel ban, when green card holders were barred from entry, and when the nation was desperately in need of leaders to denounce the obviously unconstitutional executive order:
Raddatz: Do you support President Trump’s temporary immigration ban from these predominantly Muslim countries?
McConnell: Well, I think it’s a good idea to tighten the vetting process. But I also think it’s important to remember that some of our best sources in the war against radical Islamic terrorism are Muslims, both in this country and overseas. And we have had some difficulty in the past getting interpreters, as you suggested in the earlier segment, who are helpful to us treated properly. So we need to be careful as we do this. Improving vetting, something…
Raddatz: And yet right now they’re being detained so—so do you support this or do you not support this?
McConnell: It’s hopefully going to be decided in the courts as to whether or not this has gone too far. I don’t want to criticize them for improving vetting. I think we need to be careful. We don’t have religious tests in this country.
Raddatz: In the past, you’ve called the Muslim ban completely and totally inconsistent with American values. While the President says this is not an outright Muslim ban, even if this is temporary, how is this order consistent with American values?
McConnell: Well, if they’re looking to tighten the vetting process, I mean who would be against that? But I am opposed to a religious test. The courts are going to determine whether this is too broad.
McConnell did no more there than leave himself the wiggle room necessary to be able to say later that he put a little daylight between himself and the president. With the occasional exceptions of John McCain and a small number of others, it’s been this way—or far worse—among Republicans for a very long time.
McConnell is one thing. He has no policy commitments, beyond his hope that all campaign finance regulation might someday be wiped off the books. He just wants the power of his majority, and if it’s Trump who happens to be the facilitator and guarantor of that power, fine by him.
Ryan is another matter, indeed the opposite: he has many policy commitments. You might think that would give him reason to take stands against Trump, but in fact it is precisely his policy commitments that keep him tethered to Trump. Ryan wants to dismantle the welfare state. So the devil’s bargain he has made, and this is true of many congressional Republicans, is that they will support Trump, let him deport Muslims and crack down on undocumented Latinos, let him depart from party orthodoxy on trade, let him pursue risky and maybe even sinister policies with Vladimir Putin, turn a collective blind eye to the manifold ways in which he dishonors the office, as long as the president signs whatever legislation they bring to his desk that rips the bricks out of the wall of the liberal state. They will hope in the meantime that he doesn’t start World War III or hand state secrets to the Russian FSB.
That assault on the liberal state, though, didn’t get off to a very happy start. Everyone, I think, was surprised by the vigor with which the public rose to the defense of the Affordable Care Act—hadn’t the press told us that the act was reviled?—at those mid-February town hall meetings that senators and congressmen held. Or failed to hold—a number of representatives and senators announced meetings and then, fearing that what they’d seen happen to their colleagues would fall on their heads, simply didn’t show up. I have a Facebook friend from my home state of West Virginia who kept posting about trying to see her Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito, and her GOP representative, David McKinley. Capito refused an invitation to attend a town hall meeting in Buckhannon, West Virginia, where citizens posed their questions to an empty chair. McKinley didn’t show up during his posted office hours, my friend wrote, and at length citizens were allowed to come in—two at a time—to meet with a staffer.
At the events that were held, what was notable was that the angry people were by and large white, and firmly middle-American, and a lot of them probably Republican. Chris Peterson is the sixty-two-year-old Iowa pig farmer who gained much press coverage by saying to GOP Senator Charles Grassley:
And with all due respect, sir, you’re the man that talked about the death panels. We’re going to create one great big death panel in this country [because of the fact] that people can’t afford to get insurance.
And Arkansan Kati McFarland described to her Republican senator, Tom Cotton, her family’s Republican, military, and NRA roots before telling him:
Without the coverage for preexisting conditions, I will die. That is not hyperbole. I will die. Without the protections against lifetime coverage caps, I will die. Without the Obamacare exchange health care plan that I have elected to continue after my Cobra that is going to kick in after I turn twenty-six this coming Sunday, I will die.
After all these years, the Republicans finally released an Obamacare replacement bill on March 6. The American Health Care Act is an awkward hybrid of Obamacare and longtime conservative talking points against Obamacare. It would preserve Obamacare’s principle that people can’t be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions, but it would also take away by 2020 the Medicaid subsidies that have helped cover millions. The proposal was immediately attacked by both Democrats and the most conservative Republicans, who denounced it as too similar to Obamacare. Changes to satisfy them will likely make the bill a harder sell in the Senate.
Recall that last year, before and after the election, Trump and numerous Republicans vowed that Obamacare would be repealed within days of their assumption of power. If they can’t even manage that, which was supposed to be the easy lift, it’s hard to see how they move on to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Ryan’s designs on Medicare, turning it into a program under which government would cease to be the single payer of coverage and instead seniors would get subsidies to buy private plans, are long-standing. The GOP goal on Medicaid—which these days supports not just the poor but many middle-class people with, for example, nursing-home subsidies—is simply to vastly reduce the amount of money the federal government sends to the states. On Social Security, a plan was unveiled last December by Sam Johnson, the congressman who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee on Social Security, that would eliminate a tax that high-income benefit recipients currently pay and would in turn cut benefits for most other recipients.* Efforts to move on these fronts will require investments of political capital by the Republican leaders that neither they nor the already faltering president arguably have.
Tax reform is another priority of the Republican leaders. On taxes, Trump seems to care most about lowering the corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. Congressional Republicans will be for that but they will also want to push lower personal income tax rates, the better to starve the government of funds in order to slash domestic spending, always their top goal. The trick there will be whether they can pass off whatever they come up with as “revenue neutral,” that is, not increasing the deficit. They said that back in the 2000s, when George W. Bush was president, but those tax cuts helped explode the deficit. Independent analysts have found that one recent GOP tax plan could add as much as $2.4 trillion to the deficit over ten years.
The House Republicans have put forward what’s called a “border-adjustment tax” that would give tax breaks to US exporters and remove such breaks for importers. The idea is to encourage companies to make products in the United States, but its success would very much depend on the dollar rising dramatically in value. It’s a huge risk, and corporate America is quite divided on the question, which means that the lobbying would be intensive (and expensive), which means delay.
If congressional Republicans like Ryan find that Trump is not especially helpful in enabling them to fulfill their long-held dreams of undoing all these liberal entitlements and slashing taxes again on the one percent—which candidate Trump swore to his followers he would have no part of—this romance might well be brief. Early on, during the confirmation fights—the week that McConnell chose to display his loyalty to the White House by ordering Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren to stop reading a statement from Coretta Scott King during the debate on Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general—I ran into a Democratic senator in the Capitol. Yes, they’re unified now, he told me: Right now, they’re afraid of Trump, and more to the point afraid of Trump’s voters. But give it a little time. Cracks will show. All we need is three of them to join us. (There are forty-eight Democrats in the Senate, so three Republicans voting with a unified Democratic bloc would make for a majority.) As he spoke to me, I thought he was being optimistic. But the anti-anti-Obamacare protests and Trump’s approval number of around 40 percent, abysmal for a president this early in his term, suggest maybe not.
There is, though, one subject on which history suggests the Republicans will maintain absolute solidarity, and that is the question of political attacks against Trump. This includes big matters and the smaller symbolic ones that percolate out of any White House every week. Indeed, one truth that the first few weeks of the Trump presidency have driven home to me more than any other is what an enormous influence this Republican-conservative solidarity has on the very way our political discourse is shaped.
Take as an example of a big matter the botched raid against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on January 29 in Yemen. In the first twenty-four hours, the White House managed to spin it as a success, as it took out fourteen suspected AQAP operatives. But it also killed two dozen civilians, including nine children. And it resulted in the death of one American Navy SEAL team member. Withering post-operation reports appeared in The New York Times, Reuters, and elsewhere; on background, military officials criticized the raid and even Trump himself. The next week, Yemen withdrew permission for further US-led anti-terror strikes.
After a month of mostly silence and shirking responsibility, Trump defended the raid in his joint-session speech. He introduced from the gallery Carryn Weigand Owens, the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in the attack. What appeared to be her heavenward prayers to her husband made for effective television—most TV commentators gushed, even as a number of military people observed on Twitter that they found the moment grotesquely manipulative. In any case, many questions about the raid remain unanswered—and with Republicans running Congress, they will remain so. Whereas we can be certain that if President Hillary Clinton had ordered exactly the same raid with exactly the same results, House Republicans would have started issuing subpoenas in mid-February.
It’s that way on smaller matters, too. You may recall that the Trump White House took some criticism for failing to mention Jews in its official Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. But now imagine that the Obama White House had done that. It would have been a major three-day story, and the odor of it would have lingered around Obama forever—two years later, news reports would have included sentences like “Prime Minister Netanyahu, still smarting from that Holocaust Day slight…”
Democrats and the “liberal” media simply do not have the power to shape the terms of discourse in the same way that the congeries of talk-radio hosts, websites, blogs, and social media outlets of the right do. They don’t even attempt to. Hardly a day goes by without the Trump White House doing something that makes me wonder about an “imagine if Obama had…” scenario.
Republicans couldn’t even rouse themselves to get very upset when Trump issued those infamous tweets over the first weekend in March about Obama wiretapping him. Trump not only besmirched Obama in those tweets; he also clearly implied that America’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies carried out illegal activities under the alleged orders of the outgoing president. But most of the Republicans’ criticisms were of the gentle “I know of no such evidence” variety.
This instinct on the right might be put to the test, of course, on the question of Russian interference in the election. This will not go away. After Sessions was forced to recuse himself from any Russia-related investigations, calls began to grow for the appointment of a special prosecutor. That would be something Trump would have to agree to, as Bill Clinton did in 1994 with respect to the Whitewater business. It’s hard to imagine him doing that, just as it’s hard to imagine Republicans showing any interest in getting to the bottom of the matter. But a month ago, it was hard to imagine Sessions recusing himself. These things happen turn by turn.
Republicans and conservatives over the years have excused mountains of hypocrisy in their own leaders. Deficits mattered, until Ronald Reagan ran them up and suddenly they didn’t. Cutting spending mattered, until George W. Bush increased spending and suddenly that was okay (until Bush became unpopular). Saddam Hussein was the comparative good guy in the 1980s, then he became Hitler. The Republicans have changed positions on many things, and found ways to justify those changes when it was expedient to do so. (Democrats have done this too, but at least their penchant for less starkly moralistic rhetoric makes their swerves in policy a little easier to swallow.)
But how the Republicans will find a way to defend a Republican president who may well owe his election in part to the Russian Federation, of all political forces, will be an interesting thing to watch. Questions about the extent of possible contacts with Russians during the campaign by disgraced former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, Trump aide Carter Page, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort are rife, and they have all been denied enough now by Sean Spicer and by the president himself that if hard evidence exists to the contrary and any of these committees is energetic enough to turn it up, the White House will be in deep crisis.
The Democrats, for their part, are looking already toward the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections. You will hear insiders repeat one data point in particular: that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in twenty-three House districts that are currently held by Republicans. Most of these districts are upscale suburbs and exurbs in California, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
In the meantime, on February 25, the same day the party chose Tom Perez as its new chairman, Democratic candidate Stephanie Hansen clobbered her Republican opponent in a special election for a state senate seat in a swing district in Delaware. The win gave the party control of the state’s upper chamber and it offered some evidence of what’s possible when Democrats just show up for the fight. On April 18, a special election will be held in the Georgia congressional district of Tom Price, who is the new secretary of health and human services. The race is surprisingly competitive, and the presumptive Democrat, Jon Ossoff, appears to be well financed. These early special elections are often said to augur more than they really do, but a win in Georgia would surely buck up Democratic spirits.
In the near term, the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, set to begin on March 20, will unite Trump and the congressional Republicans. That much is predictable. But so, too, is the daily unpredictability of life under Trump—what he’ll say, what he might tweet, what Steve Bannon will decide to do to undermine Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (or vice versa), what a federal judge might rule on immigration, what an intelligence source might leak on Russia, and more. There are encouraging signs of disunity everywhere.
—March 9, 2017