Talk about an impressive political about-face. In the fight over whether the government funding bill currently under negotiation would include $1.5 billion for his Great Wall, Donald Trump went from intransigent chest-thumper to panicked back-pedaler in, what, six days?
Starting last Wednesday, President Trump had budget chief Mick Mulvaney running all over town warning that the president would not look kindly on any deal that did not fund his pet border wall—that, in fact, he might even refuse to sign such a bill. Soon, other administration members, including Homeland Security chief John Kelly and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, were pushing the same message.
By the following Monday evening—having made zero progress with his congressional arm twisting and facing the vivid possibility of being blamed for shutting down the government—Trump had abandoned the fight. He told a gaggle of conservative media types visiting the White House that, on second thought, he would defer the wall debate to September.
Not that the outcome of this showdown was much of a surprise. Around Capitol Hill, Trump’s procuring a billion-plus for his wall in this spending agreement was considered about as likely as Bill O’Reilly’s being named executive director of Feministing.
That said, the speed with which the president folded “like a cheap suit,” gloated one House Democratic aide) was notable. Less than a week? One would have thought that, with so much at stake, Trump would have fought the good fight for at least another day or two. Because, while the president can put a happy spin on whatever immigration-control measures may wind up in the spending deal, between the health care bill and the wall funding, lawmakers know the real score: Congress: 2, Trump: 0.
Forget the particulars of the fiscal year 2017 budget. Trump’s flubbed attempt to play the tough guy this week carries broader, longer-term implications for his relationship with Congress. Trump blew into office vowing to whip all the crooks, losers, and dummies on the Hill into shape. Fast. Only he could drain that swamp, and woe be unto all who stood in his way.
Faced with this seething mass of presidential bombast, neither Democratic nor Republican lawmakers had any idea what to expect. Some expressed optimism. Others, horror. Most voiced anxiety. But they all recognized that Trump would need to establish his leadership chops early on. That is how the game is played in Washington. The players test one another. Challenges are issued. Bluffs are called. Power dynamics are established.
Thus far, the president has done himself no favors with his penchant for ultimatums. No matter how Trump tweets it, or what “alternative facts” he promotes, the legislative narrative of his early tenure is what it is: As with last month’s health care vote, Trump tried his my-way-or-the-highway shtick with wall funding. And, as with last month’s health care vote, Congress shrugged.
This is not, to put it mildly, an effective formula for a president’s winning the fear and/or respect of his party’s lawmakers—much less those of the opposition party.
“He just looks weak and incompetent,” observed a frustrated Republican Senate aide. “And the Democrats smell blood in the water. Why should they take him seriously on everything? Why should they stop blocking all of his nominees? All of his agenda? He’s toast.”
“Toast” may be a bit harsh. (Stale bread, maybe? Dry muffin?) But no question, the Democrats I’ve talked with in recent days weren’t feeling awed by Trump’s powers of persuasion‚—and most felt that way before he backed down on the wall. After all, they reasoned, if lawmakers from the president’s own party were willing to buck him on the health care bill, why on earth should they fear his displeasure?
With his wall threats, Trump may well have assumed he was simply playing hardball in defense of a specific campaign promise—staking out a tough opening stance from which to begin negotiations. But the president is new to Washington and has no political track record. While many voters love that about him, every power play he attempts is being watched closely, and judged sharply, by allies and adversaries alike. Whatever the particulars of a given fight, the president’s credibility and reputation are always on the line.
When his self-provoked standoff with Congress grew uncomfortable this week, Trump blinked. Again. His supporters may not care all that much. (Look to the fall, people!) Many probably didn’t even notice. But you can bet lawmakers did. And they are unlikely to forget.