President Trump’s Nightmare Before Christmas

His chief of staff insists that the recent tumult in Washington—a government shutdown, troop withdrawals—is all going according to plan. But Trump lacks many more high-profile defenders.

Jim Young / Reuters

On his second Christmas Eve in office, the president of the United States stands virtually alone in Washington, D.C.

Nine federal departments are shut down, with no resolution in sight. Democrats are furious at President Donald Trump’s attempt to hold the government hostage until he gets funding for a border wall. Many Republicans are livid about his sudden decision to pull military forces from Syria and Afghanistan—a move that’s already resulted in protest resignations from the defense secretary and a top diplomat leading the global anti-ISIS coalition. The stock market is tumbling over shutdown worries, and Trump has asked around about firing the Federal Reserve chairman. The Russia investigation is continuing to steamroll Trump’s associates. And with other recent high-profile departures within the administration, Trump is left with bare-bones executive-branch leadership.

On the Sunday-morning talk shows, the message from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike was very clear: It’s Donald Trump versus the world. But according to his new acting chief of staff, that’s exactly how the president likes it—however improbable that may seem.

“This is what Washington looks like when you have a president who refuses to go along to get along,” said Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget director who’s been running Trump’s White House since John Kelly left earlier this month. Mulvaney took on a third role on Sunday as the presidential liaison to Fox News Sunday and ABC’s This Week.

On Fox, the host, Chris Wallace, began the program with a dire question: “Are the wheels coming off the Trump presidency?” A calm and collected Mulvaney explained that the drama of the past week is all according to plan. He shifted the blame for the ongoing shutdown to congressional Democrats and predicted that it’d last well past Christmas, reasserted the need for a border wall, and distanced the president from outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis, claiming that their relationship had long been “fraying.”

In an interview with Jonathan Karl on This Week, Mulvaney played defense, walking back Trump’s comments about Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, saying that Trump “now realizes” he “does not have the ability” to fire him. He also downplayed his own past criticism of the president, telling Karl that he and Trump have “joked about” comments Mulvaney made in 2016 when he called Trump “a terrible human being.”

On the Sunday shows, the Democrats’ critiques of Trump were harsh, if a tad run-of-the-mill at this point. Responding to the shutdown, the party’s representatives reiterated that they won’t allow taxpayer dollars to fund a border wall if they can help it. Republican condemnations of Trump’s recent moves were a much noisier and newsier affair.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania echoed the qualms that Mattis expressed in his resignation letter. “The president does not share, I would say, my view that the Pax Americana of the postwar era has been enormously good for America, it’s been good for the people that I represent, it’s been great for all of us,” Toomey told the host, Chuck Todd, emphasizing fundamental differences between Trump and “the vast majority of Republicans and probably Democrats.” Toomey called upon the Senate to take a more robust foreign-policy role in the Trump era.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, who’s long been rumored to challenge Trump in the Republican presidential primary in 2020, called the withdrawal of troops from Syria a “terrible mistake” in an interview on Fox News Sunday. And on CBS’s Face the Nation, the incoming House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney supported Trump’s desire for a border wall, but sang a different tune on Syria and Afghanistan. “I am deeply, deeply concerned and I oppose strongly the president’s decision apparently to withdraw troops from Syria,” she told the host, Margaret Brennan. “The apparent decision that we’re now going to be looking at withdrawing troops from Afghanistan … these two decisions would be disastrous.”

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who appeared on Face the Nation and CNN’s State of the Union, took almost the opposite stance of Cheney, opposing the wall unless its costs are offset and praising the president for getting out of Syria and Afghanistan. He compared Afghanistan to the Vietnam War. “That was the strategy of Vietnam,” Paul said on Face the Nation. “They waited us out and the Taliban are going to wait us out. They know we will eventually leave and leave we must … The president is right, and I think the people agree with him.”

Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, who was interviewed on Face the Nation after Paul, summed up the Democratic response to Trump’s troop announcements: “By abruptly withdrawing from Syria, President Trump is handing a great big Christmas gift to Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollah Khamenei,” he told Brennan. “When there is a foreign-policy decision that's cheered by Vladimir Putin and Rand Paul, that’s a pretty good sign it’s a terrible idea.” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin echoed many Democrats, too, when he offered his reaction to the Mattis news. “It breaks my heart that [Mattis] is going to step aside,” the Illinois Democrat said on Meet the Press. “We counted on him to be there to stop this president from his worst impulse.”

Trump, surrounded by a skeleton crew of government staffers, may well have watched the Sunday shows; he’s been known to tune in from time to time. If so, he would have found few on air to defend him. Way back during the presidential campaign, Trump would tell supporters that “no one knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it!” The candidate’s pronouncement was prescient: It’s become clear that if Trump is going to fix anything, he’s going to have to go it alone.