Trump Can't Get What He Wants and Doesn't Know Why

The president’s irate criticism of the omnibus spending bill demonstrates his continued attachment to a flawed theory of the presidency.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In the end, Donald Trump had to sign the bill—for the military, he said. But he didn’t have to like it.

That was the upshot of a peculiar and rambling set of remarks (even by his standards) the president made early Friday afternoon as he signed a bill funding the government through September.

“I’ve signed this omnibus budget bill. There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill,” Trump said. “But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again.”

What it came down to, apparently, was defense spending. Trump threatened to veto the bill in a tweet Friday morning, after the White House had previously indicated he’d sign it. (My colleague Elaina Plott reported, however, that the president himself had reservations at that time.) Throughout the remarks, Trump returned incessantly to the question of funding national defense.

“We had no choice but to fund our military because we have to have by far the strongest military in world,” he said. “And this will be by far the strongest military that we’ve ever had. So when you look at all of these pages, a lot of that is devoted—a lot—to the military.”

Over and over again, he talked about defense spending, including reading through a litany of what would be allocated for specific craft in the bill. (“The tanker aircraft is very important based on everything.”) Though there’s little evidence that large swaths of the population are concerned about a dearth of military spending, Trump sounded like a garbled John F. Kennedy, with everything but missile gaps popping up.

The reason became apparent at the very end of the press statement. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was present and spoke briefly, and it seems he convinced the president to sign the bill despite his reservations. As Trump left, reporters shouted out questions, and the president said, “I looked very seriously at the veto. I was thinking about doing the veto. But because of the incredible gains we've been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our thinking.”

Trump also demanded that the Senate eliminate the filibuster, and called for the return of the line-item veto, the presidential tool ruled unconstitutional in 1998.

Trump’s objections fall into two groups, one procedural and one substantive. On procedure, the president certainly has a point. “They get together and they create a series of documents nobody has been able to read because it was just done,” he groused. “You tell me who can read that quickly. It takes a long time to read it.” This is roughly the same as Senator Rand Paul’s problem with the bill, and it’s an objection that can find a sympathetic hearing on either side of the aisle. This is no way to run a legislative process, and Trump is angry at Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for that. Of course, there are more productive ways to vent this than to threaten a veto at the last minute, when it’s too late to renegotiate or to pass another bill.

Trump’s other problem with the bill is its substance. Here, the president once again got hosed. One issue after issue, the president didn’t get what he wanted. Sanctuary cities are not defunded. There is no plan to replace DACA (though Trump’s attempt to place that failure entirely on Democrats is unpersuasive). The bill allocates $1.6 billion for 33 miles of border fence, but falls well short of the $25 billion to fund a border wall that Trump requested. The Johnson Amendment remains.

That’s the latest example of a consistent pattern: The president can’t get what he wants, and he doesn’t understand why. This is the root of much of Trump’s frustration throughout his presidency. On a few issues, the president has managed to notch real accomplishments, but they are conspicuously those on which congressional Republican leaders agree with him: confirming conservative judges, cutting taxes, and reducing regulation on businesses. But on those issues that matter most to Trump, which are also those on which he diverges most from GOP orthodoxy, he has found himself stymied time and again. The spending bill shows that once again.

Trump’s grandiose, semi-authoritarian claim, “I alone can fix it,” in his speech accepting the 2016 Republican nomination was a subject of intense criticism, but in retrospect it seems to have represented not so much a vision of how Trump could transform the presidency but a mistaken impression of how the presidency already worked. Though political scientists and some journalists have explained clearly how the power of the bully pulpit is badly overrated, this was yet another case in which Trump had not carefully studied the realities of politics.

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.