In many ways, the Trump presidency never got off the ground: The president’s legislative agenda is going nowhere, his relations with foreign leaders are frayed, and his approval rating with the American people never enjoyed the honeymoon period most newly elected presidents do. Pundits who are sympathetic toward, or even neutral on, the president keep hoping that the next personnel move—the appointment of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, say, or the long-rumored-but-never-delivered departure of Steve Bannon—will finally get the White House in gear.
But what if they, and many other people, are thinking about it wrong? Maybe the reality is not that the Trump presidency has never gotten started. It’s that he’s already reached his lame-duck period. For most presidents, that comes in the last few months of a term. For Trump, it appears to have arrived early, just a few months into his term. The president did always brag that he was a fast learner.
Who knows when the lame-duck period began. Was it on January 21, when Trump’s administration tried to argue, against all evidence, that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history? Or the next day, when Kellyanne Conway introduced the world to “alternative facts”? Was it when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey? Was it the days-long slow reveal on Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer in June 2016? Or did it come on Tuesday, when Trump stepped to a lectern in Trump Tower and delivered a strange de facto defense of white nationalism?
Whatever the turning point, thinking about Trump as a lame-duck president seems a better rubric for making sense of his administration than most. Consider the things that happen in a lame-duck period.
A lame-duck president’s legislative agenda starts to stall out. Members of Congress are just no longer interested in following the president’s lead, especially where it might create a political liability for them. Big bills start to waste away on Capitol Hill, and where a new president would bring both political capital and novelty to bear, a lame duck just doesn’t have the juice. So it is with Trump. His various attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare have all failed, and while he was able to force both houses of Congress to take them back up before, largely through sheer force of will, his more recent pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he has no interest in heading into the breach once again, and GOP members have largely agreed with him.
A lame-duck president gets caught in a vicious cycle. Once legislators start refusing to follow his lead, he begins to look like a paper tiger, so they follow his lead even less. Now that Republican senators have defied Trump once, why should they get in line on other controversial bills, like tax reform?
By the time a president reaches his lame-duck period, scandals have begun to pile up. Sometimes they are minor and varied; sometimes they’re blockbusters, from Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky. Either way, the taint of controversy tarnishes the president, diminishes his political capital, and starts to absorb time and energy that once would have been spent on constructive rather than defensive actions. Trump is already facing an open-ended investigation, unmatched in breadth by anything except the Clinton-era Whitewater scandal—taking in allegations of money-laundering, of espionage, and of violations of campaign-finance laws, and potentially reaching into Trump’s own personal financial dealings prior to becoming president. It’s already proving a large distraction, as demonstrated by Trump taking time while returning from a trip to Europe to dictate a statement on behalf of his son, Donald Trump Jr. The statement he dictated turned out to be an obfuscatory disaster that only made the matter worse. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer is busy sending defenses of Trump’s Charlottesville comments to conservative journalists.
As controversy and inaction set in during a president’s lame-duck period, he starts to lose staffers who see no reason to stick around for a final stretch of inaction. Others stick around but grumble to the press about lack of discipline and lack of progress—and as they look ahead to their next job, they often put preserving their own reputations ahead of advancing their boss’s agenda. Trump’s West Wing has a busy revolving door—he’s already lost two communications directors, one press secretary, one chief of staff, and a national-security adviser, among others—and the tenor of leaks about the White House, once largely a chronicle of internecine warfare, is increasingly full of statements of disappointment and frustration about the president himself.
Another problem for a lame-duck president is that exhaustion sets in. It’s the seven-, or in some cases, three-, year itch, as someone who was a fresh and exciting face at the start of his term has become tired, boring, or irksome. Trump benefited from his outsize media personality during the campaign, but now he’s paying for it. Barely a day goes by without a new Trump-involved controversy. The public, and even the journalists paid to care, have become numb. Some of Trump’s aides and allies want him to take a less public approach, but that’s beyond him. He has one mode: on, and public-facing. Just take his alleged vacation over the last week or two, which has produced a surfeit of presidential news even by Trump standards.
As a result, most—though not all—presidents see a slow slide in their approval rating toward the end of their terms. Trump’s presidency has been one long slide, with his numbers now resting in the mid-30s.
This is not sustainable. Something is going to have to give. I do not know what, but something will give. The nation cannot sustain this constant state of chaos and crisis drift for three and a half more years. We will either see external or internal forces applied that will hurt the nation.
But thinking about Trump as a lame duck who will just have to stumble through the rest of his presidency makes more sense, at least at the present moment, than expecting that Trump will be removed from office, whether by resignation, impeachment, or some more far-flung possibility. The president shows little sign of being the sort of person who could be forced into resigning—after all, after he was bullied by staff into condemning racism, he was so agitated that the following day he defended the Charlottesville marchers with a more strongly worded statement.
Impeachment remains a remote possibility, even with 40 percent of voters favoring it in a new Public Religion Research Institute poll. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is likely months, if not years, away from concluding with any charges or referrals. And the hope of some other solution—from a 25th Amendment removal to a military coup—is, as I wrote earlier this week, both dangerous and unrealistic. Meanwhile, negative partisanship guarantees that a durable partisan equilibrium persists. Even after the backlash to Trump’s comments Tuesday, including from many staunch conservatives, two-thirds of Republicans now say they back Trump’s comments.
Instead, Trump will have to muddle through, no doubt with the accent on “mud.” Are there ways that presidents can fight their way back to relevance once relegated to the duck pond? It’s difficult, though not impossible. Barack Obama, for example, faced some notable defeats late in his term—most importantly, he was unable to get his nominee for a Supreme Court seat confirmed—but he also put together a long list of real (if fragile) achievements.
Trump has one big benefit that other lame-duck presidents haven’t: He has three and a half years, minimum, left in office. (It’s hard to believe that he’d win reelection if current trends persist, but then it was hard to believe that he’d win election in the first place.) But there are also several reasons he might be particularly ill-equipped to bounce back.
A classic step for a lame-duck president is to concentrate on foreign affairs. That’s one area where the executive branch has wide latitude to act on its own, without requiring the cooperation of a recalcitrant Congress. Trump doesn’t have cohesive enough a foreign-policy vision to point to obvious goals. Indeed, he ran on a platform of retrenchment on the world stage, not greater involvement. Where he has ventured overseas, trouble has awaited. He has feuded with the leaders of some of the closest U.S. allies. Even Britain’s Theresa May, who has worked to maintain a decorous relationship with Trump, delivered a veiled criticism of Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville. Besides, Trump may have less leeway in foreign affairs than most presidents. Congress has already shown an unusual degree of willingness to meddle in executive-branch autonomy. Angry about Russian interference in the election and worried about Trump’s proposed rapprochement with the Kremlin, Congress overwhelmingly passed new sanctions, over the White House’s objections.
Trump could try to work domestically through executive action, too, but he’d face challenges there as well. With a sheaf of executive orders at the start of his term, the president already ordered much of what he had identified as possible through the White House. Finding new and more creative ways to flex presidential muscle would require a well-staffed, orderly, and experienced administration able to work as a well-oiled machine, and there’s no indication that exists.
There is one other possibility: a crisis. In moments of catastrophe, citizens like to rally around even an unpopular president, seeking unity and leadership. But the signs so far about how Trump might handle a genuine, huge crisis are not promising. In fact, given the chance to deal with a crisis, he has often just made things worse for himself. Over the last week, his improvised language inflamed an already dangerous standoff with North Korea. Then he turned a national tragedy in Charlottesville into a huge personal liability for himself out of an inability to simply condemn racism and leave it at that.
The result is that, as improbable as it seems, the nation could be in for an indefinite period much like the current one. If Donald looks like a lame duck, swims like a lame duck, and quacks like a lame duck, there’s a good chance he’s a lame duck.