Cruelty mixed with the veneer of compassion and stewardship is the essence of colonialism. Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah says President Trump reinforced that in Puerto Rico, where he suggested survivors of Hurricane Maria are a burden. (Adriana Usero,Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump — frustrated by Congress for failing to give him major bills to sign (never mind what’s in them or how many of his promises they would break or how many millions they would hurt), enraged at the media for refusing to give him the plaudits he knows he deserves, and worried that his base perceives him as feckless — is spraying new threats in all directions at an escalating rate.

Trump plainly views this as his only remaining way, for the time being at least, to create the impression of action. But a kind of Trump Threat Deflation is setting in. As the threats multiply, they are growing increasingly empty, buffoonish and unbelievable. Yet the unfortunate twist here is that Trump is nonetheless managing to do a great deal of damage, all the same.

Consider the latest news:

Trump is now threatening to withdraw aid from Puerto Rico, even though it’s in the midst of a horrifying humanitarian disaster. After tweeting that Puerto Rico is to blame for its financial crisis and suggesting that Congress should thus evaluate how much it wants to spend, he ominously declared that “we cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders” in Puerto Rico “forever.”

As The Post puts it, Trump is “effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory,” even though “the vast majority of the island remains without power” and “hospitals are running short on medicine.” So Trump’s threat is obviously very worrisome. Yet the threat is also open-ended and thus is largely meaningless. What is it supposed to accomplish, exactly, except to frighten and enrage people, and to convey some vague sense that Trump is snapping a towel at Puerto Rico’s butt like a sadistic, bullying frat boy?

Trump just renewed his threat to go after the licenses of news organizations. He tweeted: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” But as Paul Waldman has shown, while this is reprehensible as an attack on the idea of a free press, these threats are ridiculous as a substantive matter. Yet that is irrelevant: Trump has devolved to a level where the underlying sentiment and the gesture of a threat are the whole point.

As political scientist Greg Weiner observes, attacks on norms such as respecting the independence of the press work with Trump’s base, because many elements of it “associate these customs with failed politics,” and “every violation reinforces the sense that he sides with them over a corrupt establishment.” It’s basically authoritarian malice for show — at least for now — to create the impression that he’s fighting for “his people,” who, he fears, may be coming to view him as weak.

Trump is escalating the Obamacare sabotage, but it’s unclear what impact the latest move will have. Trump is set to sign an executive order today that would exempt certain types of insurance plans from Obamacare regulations. As Jonathan Cohn explains, this could create a parallel universe of lower-cost, lower-regulation plans that would drive up premiums for comprehensive coverage, especially for those with preexisting conditions, thus pushing the markets “closer to collapse.” Yet it’s not even clear how much of this will happen — a lot depends on whether and how agencies implement it.

Trump has claimed this move will “give great health care to many people.” It is possible to support this move on the principles that deregulation is good and that making cheaper, skimpier coverage available to the healthy is worth the trade-off of making life much harder for the sick. But there is zero chance that Trump either cares about such principles or understands what this executive order will do. What he does understand is that by signing it, he will be perceived as acting in some way.

We do know Trump grasps the notion that he can take executive steps that damage Obamacare. We know this because he has said so — he has threatened to cut off subsidies to insurance companies as a way to force Democrats to deal with him. That won’t work, but we do know from it that Trump understands that it is in his power to harm the law. What’s more, he has explicitly said he wants to “let Obamacare fail.” Ultimately, all that matters here is that Trump is perceived to be doing something to unravel it.

This latest exercise in sabotage, of course, is part of a much broader sabotage campaign that includes threatening to cut off the cost-sharing reductions and defunding efforts to maximize enrollment. And those tactics are already helping cause premiums to rise and could seriously destabilize the individual markets, potentially adding up to consequences that harm millions. So in this case, the threats, taken together, really are doing a lot of damage. But that damage isn’t bringing Trump any closer to signing a repeal bill. His threat to go after the licenses of news organizations is only leading to more aggressive coverage. And his threat to cut off aid to Puerto Rico is only going to frighten and infuriate a lot of people. Are you tired of all the winning yet?

* REPUBLICANS RELUCTANT TO KILL IRAN DEAL: Trump is expected to decertify the Iran nuclear deal tomorrow, which would only wound it, because Congress then must decide whether to reimpose sanctions, which would kill it. But the New York Times reports:

Senior Republican congressional aides said that outcome appeared unlikely, even if much of their party — and many Democrats — remained critical of the deal. Without explicit evidence of a breach by the Iranians, and given Europe’s support for the deal, there appeared to be little appetite among Republican leaders to pull the plug on Mr. Trump’s behalf.

The most likely outcome is that Congress amends the deal in some way, and so Republicans want Trump to give a bit of guidance as to what he might want along those lines. Imagine that!

* TRUMP HAD A ‘FIT’ OVER IRAN DEAL: Anne Gearan reports that Trump raged at his advisers because he felt “jammed” into a position where he could not kill the Iran deal outright. So they came up with a way out:

He was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex ­Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits. … So White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior advisers came up with a plan — one aimed at accommodating Trump’s loathing of the Iran deal as “an embarrassment” without killing it outright.

That plan is to decertify and punt to Congress. This accommodation had to be created simply because Trump was enraged by his own advisers’ insistence that Obama’s deal might have virtues.

* GOP SENATOR QUESTIONS TRUMP’S COMMITMENT TO FIRST AMENDMENT: Trump’s inchoate, raving suggestion that NBC News’ license should be challenged prompted this scalding reply from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.):

Mr. President: Words spoken by the President of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?

Trump did not reply. But last night, he reiterated that “licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.” Why aren’t more Republicans condemning this?

* WHY THE VIRGINIA CONTEST IS SO CLOSE: Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball explains that the gubernatorial race is tight because of a likely older and whiter off-year electorate and because GOPer Ed Gillespie isn’t seen as a full-blown Trumpist and could win white swing voters:

The favorable environment — that is, a fairly unpopular Republican president in the White House and a relatively popular outgoing Democratic governor — is helping to keep the Democrat slightly ahead, but given the tendency in Virginia to vote against the sitting presidential party in gubernatorial elections and Trump’s poor approval rating, [Ralph] Northam should maybe be ahead by a little more.

The polling averages put Northam up by 6.8 points, but it’s worth noting that Democrats believe his edge is considerably tighter than that.

* DEMOCRATS GEAR UP FOR 2020 FREE-FOR-ALL: CBS News has an overview of all the Democrats who appear to be seriously thinking about running for president — and there are at least 11 of them, even though Trump’s first year isn’t even over:

Public opinion polls continue to show Mr. Trump’s approval ratings are stuck in the high 30s, and since the beginning of his presidency, his average approval rating has never broken 50 percent, according to Real Clear Politics. The Democratic field is wide open to challenge the sitting president, and could very well resemble the vastness of the Republican field in early 2015.

If Trump’s approval remains in the toilet, expect the jockeying to intensify. The 2020 Democratic presidential primary is going to be one for the ages.

* AND CNN NOTES TRUMP’S AUTHORITARIAN STREAK: CNN’s lead politics story right now bluntly states that Trump is exhibiting the traits of “dictatorial leaders throughout history and in illiberal societies throughout the world.” Note this, from one specialist in extremism:

“He is showing clear signs of an authoritarian leader, most notably by blurring the national and the personal, considering critique of him similar to critique of the country, and accepting none of it. He clearly considers dissent as unpatriotic and doesn’t believe it should be accepted or protected … He craves adulation … and he seems to only respect military leaders and force.”

Given that CNN is Trump’s lead “Fake News” target right now, this will only exacerbate the empty authoritarian gestures.