THE MORNING PLUM:
When disasters strike the United States, we generally are treated to not one, but two, rituals. The first unfolds around the president’s efforts to project an empathizing, unifying, consoling, competent, stabilizing presence. The second unfolds around the press corps’ collective rumination on whether the president passed the “test” posed to him by that imperative role and what impact that will have on his political fortunes going forward.
President Trump on Tuesday is set to visit Hurricane Harvey’s devastation — “Leaving now for Texas!” he just tweeted — which means both these rituals are getting underway. Indeed, multiple articles this morning are asking not just whether Trump will rise to the occasion but also whether this will afford him the opportunity for a reset of sorts amid the tumult, scandal and racial strife of his first seven months.
A number of GOP strategists tell NPR that they are hoping Trump will today resist his usual instinct toward self-aggrandizement and distracted bluster, and instead will demonstrate empathy, competence, a healing tone and a relentless focus on the disaster’s practical challenges and impact on its victims. One says this could be a “very important moment in his young presidency,” and another sees an opportunity to harness the “nation’s unity and goodwill” in a new direction. Meanwhile, Trump aides tell the New York Times that they believe the disaster has made Trump more detail-oriented and less prone to destructive outbursts and mood swings — in other words, a new, emerging Trump.
Hopefully, Trump will rise to the occasion today, and management of the disaster response will continue to go as smoothly as possible. But beyond these things, questions about whether this will afford Trump a “reset” opportunity seem deeply flawed. They reflect an inability to reckon with the true depths of Trump’s megalomania, disengagement from policy details and utter detachment from any sense of responsibility to the public — and with the degree to which those things are deeply intertwined with all of the racial divisiveness and abuses of power that continue to rot away at this presidency.
Consider where we are right now. Just yesterday, Trump reaffirmed his pardon of Joe Arpaio, and the details of how he did so are important. Trump effusively praised Arpaio, saying he has “done a great job” and has been “strong on illegal immigration.” This is an implicit endorsement of the very conduct for which Arpaio was held in criminal contempt of court (defying a judge’s command that he remain constrained by the Constitution from violating the rights of Latino immigrants) and for which he has been roundly criticized (the serial abuse and humiliation of inmates).
Incredibly, Trump also defended the pardon by recalling that the crowd at his rally in Arizona “went absolutely crazy” when he spoke up for Arpaio. Trump has now essentially confirmed that he pardoned Arpaio, at least in part, because he agreed with the goals of Arpaio’s abuses and flouting of the Constitution and because his base cheered him over it. As Michael Gerson points out, the pardon must be seen as an effort to normalize and entrench bigotry at precisely the moment — in the aftermath of Charlottesville — when he should have done the opposite. Trump’s weak condemnation of white supremacy was steeped in megalomania, in a desire not to be seen capitulating to his “enemies,” and in his eagerness to please his base. The Arpaio pardon simply builds on those things. The impact on the rest of the nation of all of this is beside the point entirely.
A similar situation looms in the form of Trump’s desire for a border wall. He has already threatened to force a government shutdown to compel Congress to fund his wall. This standoff was itself created by Trump’s initial folly in proposing this absurd idea and suggesting Mexico would pay for it, which he believes has saddled him with the need to save face by getting it done. Now Trump’s vow to build that wall is set to get tied up in the fight over government funding — and by extension, over the funding of Harvey disaster relief. But if Trump is truly “resetting” after Harvey, then surely he will not force this battle to a head. Right?
One hopes so. But recall that, while majorities oppose the building of a wall, his shutdown threat, too, was cheered by his Arizona rally crowd. And Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, privately urged Trump not to back down on the wall, because his base could not stand to see him suffer the ignominy and humiliation of not getting his way on it, after having failed to repeal Obamacare.
It’s very likely that Trump will cave on the wall once again. But it is easy to envision a lot of Trumpian ugliness unfolding before that happens. Whatever Trump achieves in the way of a reset, it will soon come under immense strain from the same old megalomaniacal and racially divisive impulses that have rotted away at his presidency all along.
* RUSSIA PROBE ADVANCES ONCE AGAIN: NBC News reports that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is examining Trump’s role in creating the initial statement from Donald Trump Jr. that lied about the meeting with the Russians to get information about Hillary Clinton:
A person familiar with Mueller’s strategy said that whether or not Trump made a “knowingly false statement” is now of interest to prosecutors. “Even if Trump is not charged with a crime as a result of the statement, it could be useful to Mueller’s team to show Trump’s conduct to a jury that may be considering other charges.”
It appears Trump helped to mislead the nation about the first clear evidence of his campaign’s eagerness to collude with Russia’s efforts to sabotage our election — yet another manifestation of his total lack of sense of responsibility to the public that will still be there after any Harvey reset.
* TRUMP TAX CUTS COULD END UP SHRINKING: The New York Times reports from inside the talks over tax reform that Trump’s top advisers may end up scaling back the size of the proposed tax cuts:
Already, their ambitions have drifted from the president’s original mark: A 15 percent corporate tax rate proposed in April is now likely to move to the 20 to 25 percent range, say two people familiar with the officials’ recent thinking. And a proposed 35 percent ceiling on the highest personal income tax rate could be shelved altogether, leaving the current 39.6 percent cap intact.
Imagine if, after looking the other way as Trump serially erodes our democracy and institutions, Republicans don’t even end up with the big tax cuts they hoped for. Sad!
* BANNON GOES TO WAR AGAINST TRUMP AND MCCONNELL: Now that Stephen K. Bannon is vowing war against establishment Republicans from outside, Politico reports that he has picked his first target, in the GOP runoff in the Alabama Senate race:
During a closed-door meeting with powerful conservatives in Washington last week, Bannon declared that he’s supporting former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore over Trump-endorsed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, according to two people who were present. Bannon … said that he is looking to activate the conservative base to Moore’s cause.
If Moore wins the Sept. 26th runoff, it’s possible Democrats might contest the race, meaning Bannon may end up hurting the GOP’s chances in next year’s battle for the Senate.
* HURRICANE HARVEY COULD UNDERCUT TRUMP CLIMATE APPROACH: Ron Brownstein talks to climatologists who agree that either the severity of Harvey, or the overall increase in extreme weather, can be linked to climate change. And:
Trump has dismissed climate change as a “hoax”; the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of uprooting the major regulatory initiatives Obama undertook to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, cars and trucks. Trump also withdrew the US from the Paris global climate accord. … Trump has slighted the national interest in controlling the risks associated with a changing climate.
Trump keeps boasting that he is president during a record-size hurricane, but one imagines his thinking on the matter will end there.
* COULD TRUMP END UP SPLITTING THE GOP? David Brooks argues that the GOP has been hijacked by Trump’s white identity politics:
White identity politics as it plays out in the political arena is completely noxious. Trump … established his political identity through birtherism, he won the Republican nomination on the Muslim ban, he campaigned on the Mexican wall, he governed by being neutral on Charlottesville and pardoning the racialist Joe Arpaio. Each individual Republican is now compelled to embrace this garbage or not. The choice is unavoidable, and white resentment is bound to define Republicanism more and more in the months ahead.
Putting aside Brooks’s avoidance of the GOP’s long history of racial dog-whistling, it is probably true that Trump is only going to get worse in this regard, which will only deepen the GOP dilemma.
* QUOTE OF THE DAY: An anonymous GOP consultant explains to David Drucker why Republicans continue to stick by the president:
“Your heart tells you that he’s bad for the country. Your head looks at polling data among Republican primary voters and sees how popular he is. It would be malpractice not to advise clients to attach themselves to that popularity.”
Actually, your head should also tell you that Trump is bad for the country.
* AND TRUMP WAS ‘DISPLEASED’ OVER THIN RALLY CROWD: Bloomberg Politics reports that Trump was in a “bad mood” just before his Arizona rally:
TV and social media coverage showed that the site of his campaign rally, the Phoenix Convention Center, was less than full. Backstage, waiting in a room with a television monitor, Trump was displeased, one person familiar with the incident said: TV optics and crowd sizes are extremely important to the president.
Even though the rally filled in, Trump made sure the offending advance man was informed that he’d never manage another Trump rally, Bloomberg reports. Remember all those lies about his inaugural crowd size?