He seems to have subscribed, and may still subscribe, to an extreme version of what Matt Yglesias termed the “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency,” in which presidents are superheroes who get what they want through sheer force of will. This is not, however, the way Washington really works, and while Trump has experienced that, he doesn’t seem to have quite come to understand it, thus his fury and threat on the spending bill Friday.
If Trump wanted to affect the text of the bill, he had ways to do it. He could have gotten intensely involved in the negotiation process early. He could have presented a budget that represented something like an opening volley in a negotiation, rather than a utopian scheme that Congress was never going to take seriously. But Trump has shown no appetite or patience for rolling up his sleeves and getting into the nitty-gritty. He’d rather make threats from the White House when it’s too late to change anything.
Broadly, he still seems to believe that messaging can win wars that are, at heart, about bureaucracy and closed-door horse trading. Frustrated, the president keeps churning through staff. This month alone has seen exits of economic adviser Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, attorney John Dowd, and National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
He replaced Cohn with Larry Kudlow, a television pundit who plays economist quite effectively on TV but has a terrible track record. Dowd’s exit was hastened by the arrival of Joseph DiGenova, who is an experienced lawyer but whose hiring seems to be motivated largely by his aggressive (and conspiracy-peddling) recent defenses of Trump on television. McMaster will be succeeded by John Bolton, who has some government experience but who, again, appears to have come to Trump’s attention through his own television punditry. Indeed, he and Trump have some significant areas of policy disagreement (on the war in Iraq and on Russia, to begin with), but Politico reported, “A White House official said Trump was ultimately drawn to Bolton, in part because he was impressed by his many appearances on Fox News.”
What these new appointees share is not just a television resume. They are hires in Trump’s own image: He is selecting them not for their ability to give him the best advice (never one to take counsel, he has become even less willing of late), nor for their ability to expertly navigate the proverbial halls of government and pull the levers of power. Trump wants to replicate the magic he created on the campaign trail, where he could change the course of events simply by speaking or by tweeting. This has been missing from the White House, and Trump is acting as though the problem is merely that he needs a force multiplier, not understanding that he actually needs a different strategy. Even as the White House seeks a new communications director, each of these men is being hired more as a spokesman than as a manager.
None of that will solve the frustrations that Trump has with the omnibus spending bill, though, which is one reason why his promise never to sign such a bill again seems shaky. Preventing a replay of this week will require careful planning, deft maneuvering, and an unerring focus from the White House, three things he is unlikely to achieve. Trump is bringing microphones to a memo fight.