Who knows what acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had in mind when he stepped to a lectern in the White House briefing room Thursday? (Not Trump’s legal team, apparently.) Whatever his goal, Mulvaney delivered a succinct credo for both the Trump administration and the Trump 2020 campaign.
“I have news for everybody: Get over it,” Mulvaney said.
The specific context was Mulvaney’s peculiar decision to admit that, yes, the Trump administration had conducted a quid pro quo with the government of Ukraine—not for an investigation into the family of Joe Biden, Mulvaney insisted, but for a bogus conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s role in the hacking of the 2016 election.
“There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy,” Mulvaney chided reporters. “That is going to happen. Elections have consequences, and the foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.”
Mulvaney’s decision to admit to a quid pro quo while claiming it was a different one than believed was insufficiently clever by half, since it contradicted the president’s (implausible) insistence that there had been no quid pro quo, and since the partial transcript of a July 25 call released by the White House shows Trump bringing up the Bidens. Within hours, Mulvaney released a statement trying to reverse his earlier remarks. “Let me be clear,” he said, employing the telltale tic of people who are obfuscating, “there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”
But Mulvaney’s comments weren’t just more revealing than he intended about the specifics of the Ukraine scandal. They also distilled the guiding mantra of the Trump administration. Others have tried to coin their own phrases (one senior administration official tried to make “We’re America, bitch” happen, and failed), but the real Trump doctrine is “Get over it.”
The administration is forcing foreign governments into quid pro quos in order to assist Trump’s political prospects? Get over it.
It’s using the power of the presidency to financially benefit the president and his company? Get over it.
It circumvented Congress’s power of the purse to begin construction of a border wall? Get over it.
It separated children from families at the border, locking them in inhumane conditions? Get over it.
The president is evading Senate confirmation by naming “acting” officials to top posts? Get over it.
Russia hacked the 2016 election? Get over it.
At the heart of this Trump doctrine is the presumption that any criticisms of the president are born of bad faith, the result of Democrats (and perhaps some like-minded Republicans) who have never gotten over the fact that Trump won the presidency. Their objections to Trump’s behavior must be sour grapes, not substantive; they need to, at long last, accept the results of the 2016 election. Trump himself talks about the election constantly, reveling in the memory, even in stump speeches during the 2018 midterms and now in the 2020 presidential cycle.
There is a kernel of truth here: Many of Trump’s opponents really haven’t gotten over the 2016 results, and many are quick to call his presidency illegitimate. This does not, however, render substantive objections to his decision on policy and legal grounds void, nor does Trump’s win mandate that Americans treat him with deference and loyalty.
Trump is not the first president to try to argue that his election meant he ought to get his way. When, in January 2009, Republicans challenged Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, the new president glibly replied, “I won.” But Obama soon learned it didn’t work that way. Constrained by Republicans and by the law, he couldn’t simply muscle his way through.
At times, Obama did test the bounds of legality. Having said that he couldn’t unilaterally grant “Dreamers” status to stay in the United States, he then turned around and did so. But more often, he tried to defend his moves on their substantive merits and persuade the public to back him—and he often failed, as he bitterly acknowledged.
The Trump administration doesn’t bother with persuasion. Confronted with the lack of precedents for his behavior, the president and his aides shrug. Mulvaney could have argued that previous commanders in chief have done just what Trump did. (Trump himself has argued he is acting the same way Joe Biden did as vice president, but the analogy doesn’t hold up.) He could have tried to offer a partial walk-back, arguing that honest mistakes were made. Instead, he said everyone should get over it.
This is another demonstration of the fundamental insight of the Trump presidency: The rules matter only if someone is willing and able to enforce them. Federal courts have been the most effective limitation on the administration, but politically, Democrats have been willing but largely unable to enforce rules, while Republicans are arguably able but unwilling.
Impeachment is the newest and most potent tool Democrats are willing to employ in their effort to restrain Trump. How effective it will be remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the White House has argued that the whole inquiry is invalid because Democrats just want to drive him from office. If they wish to do that, Trump and his allies have argued, their chance is in the 2020 election. Until then, they have to get in line.
And if Democrats object that this is unfair, since Trump is demonstrating his intention to tilt the board against the Democratic nominee by soliciting foreign interference in the election—well, there’s an answer for that: Get over it.