Updated on August 16 at 3:59 p.m.
While Donald Trump is on vacation, there are major renovations going on in the West Wing. Perhaps they’ll alter plans and include a portcullis and a moat, because the White House is under siege.
The president is once again facing loud denunciation (though so far little else) from members of his own party. Vice President Pence is cutting short an overseas trip and returning home to an administration in crisis. And Wednesday afternoon, the president announced he was pulling the plug on a manufacturing council and a strategy and policy forum, both comprised of business leaders, after a spree of defections in reaction to Trump’s handling of violence in Charlottesville.
Trump’s campaign for president stood on two legs: the politics of racial grievance, and a promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. What became clear this week is that he can either work with industrial titans on jobs or he can place white identity politics center stage, but he cannot do both. With his open embrace of de-facto white nationalism on Tuesday, Trump made his choice.
From his border wall with Mexico to his protectionist trade impulses to his vow to end “American carnage,” Trump promised white Americans that he would get them back on their feet, turn back the tides of immigration and progressive social justice, and bring back their jobs.
In order to take on the jobs question, he assembled two panels of blue-chip business leaders, the President’s Manufacturing Council and the Strategy and Policy Forum. The actual utility of presidential panels like this is often hard to judge, but for Trump, they represented the concrete evidence that unlike previous presidents, he was a businessman who could bring other titans of business together to make the country run better for its people.
The two bodies were already fragile—several members quit over Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord—but it was the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville that wrecked them. After Trump issued a bland statement on Saturday blaming “all sides” for violence at the march, Merck CEO Ken Frazier announced he was stepping down from the Manufacturing Council’s board. It did not go unremarked that Trump was faster to denounce Frazier than he was neo-Nazis, but Monday afternoon he tried to correct course, laboriously reading a statement in which he declared, “Racism is evil.”
Questions about Trump’s sincerity quickly surfaced, climaxing in a stunning press conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday, in which he tried to defend the Charlottesville march even as he condemned neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The number of defections from the council climbed over the course of the week, as my colleague Annie Lowrey chronicled. The members were either genuinely appalled by Trump’s remarks, used their acute business sense to realize that being associated with him would be bad for their companies and reputations, or both.
Wednesday afternoon, Reuters and CNBC both reported that Trump’s Strategy and Policy Forum had decided to disband itself amid the controversy. Trump had been defiant over earlier defections—“For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he tweeted Tuesday morning—but he saw the end in sight and tried to get ahead of the story. In a twist on the old “you can’t quit, I’m firing you,” he said he did so for the good of the members:
Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2017
In practical terms, the end of these groups may not make much difference. After all, Trump has achieved so few of his goals on economic policy that the executives’ absence can’t really hurt. It is, however, a blow to Trump’s self-conception. Having long nursed a grudge over being viewed derisively by many business moguls, he reveled in inviting them to the White House. It is also a blow to his public image, suggesting that rather than being the businessman who could fix government, he can wrangle neither the private nor the public sector effectively.
And it is, as well, a challenge to his approach to race. On Tuesday, a reporter asked him what he’d do to overcome racial divides. “I really think jobs can have a big impact,” Trump said. “I think if we continue to create jobs at levels that I’m creating jobs, I think that’s going to have a tremendous impact, positive impact, on race relations.” If Trump believes, as he told reporters, that racial divides can be healed by the rising wages of a manufacturing revival, the dissolution of the business councils deals his agenda a double blow.
Also on Wednesday, North America’s Building Trades Unions also issued a statement that did not name Trump but called on “men and women of character to demonstrate leadership and unequivocally reject those who perpetrate hate, racism, sexism or any other manner of corrosive public discourse and action that only weaken us as a country.”
But the demise of the two panels is just one element of the latest self-inflicted crisis for the White House. Pundits have for months wondered what would happen when Trump encountered a genuine crisis that was not of his own making, and Charlottesville helps to clarify: As usual, he finds a way to make it harder for himself.
One bright spot for Trump is that despite the horror with which his comments on Charlottesville have been received, he has yet to have a single Cabinet member or high-profile aide resign in protest. While there’s been lots of staff turnover at the White House, those who have left have either been fired or pushed out in internal power battles. Reports pop up from time to time of top aides who are angry, but none of them has actually quit or said publicly that they could not tolerate the president’s words or actions.
Trump’s comments place all of his associates in a difficult position: They have to find some way to defend the president without implicating themselves in his wilder positions. Pence, speaking in Chile, said, “What happened in Charlottesville was a tragedy and the president has been clear on this tragedy and so have I. I spoke at length about this heartbreaking situation on Sunday night in Colombia and I stand with the president and I stand by those words.” But he avoided other parts of a question about whether there were “good people” in the march, or whether Robert E. Lee should be considered an American hero. The vice president said he was cutting short his Latin American trip and coming home on Thursday, ahead of schedule.
Pence faces the same dilemma as newly installed Chief of Staff John Kelly, who looked uncomfortable during Trump’s remarks Tuesday, and as Republican officeholders. Many of them continue to treat Trump’s views on Charlottesville as an error, but as one more akin to a tactical difference—as though they simply disagreed about how to fund a new initiative. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, perhaps Trump’s most prominent GOP critic at the moment, said he wanted his colleagues to stage an intervention with Trump:
Just off phone w @JeffFlake, who says he hopes this will prompt senators to collectively go to Trump.— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) August 16, 2017
but: "i'm not sure he will listen"
Flake’s doubts that Trump would listen are prudent. This is not simply a matter of difference of policy approach. The optimists espouse the view that they can talk Trump out of a central tenet of his political identity. The improbability of that happening is manifest in the case of Trump’s manufacturing and strategy councils, in which he would not sacrifice white identity politics to defend another of his top priorities.