For someone who lies more often than any president in history, President Trump has a remarkable ability to speak profound truths almost by accident. His comment in January 2016 that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” has proved more prescient than anyone realized at the time.
And Tuesday, at an event hosted by a group opposed to abortion rights, Trump began by reading part of his prepared text and then went off script in a revealing way:
Your vote in 2018 is every bit as important as your vote in 2016. Although I’m not sure I really believe that, but you know. I don’t know who the hell wrote that line, I’m not sure. But it’s still important, remember.
You can pinpoint the second House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) heart rips in half, his dreams of becoming speaker of the House dashed against the shoals of Trump’s monumental ego.
There are two ways this Trump quote gets at larger truths.
First, it’s becoming clear that Trump is pretty much done caring about Congress. It’s not that Trump doesn’t want Republicans to hold onto the House and Senate. He surely knows that if Democrats get subpoena power, they’ll be able to open all kinds of investigations that will bedevil him for the rest of his term. And his lack of concern about the midterms could prove to be a serious blow to Republican hopes of holding onto both chambers at a time when they have enough problems already.
Still, there are reasons it’s hard to blame Trump for not being too interested in Congress. Legislating is complicated and involves a great deal of work, requiring an understanding of both policy and some intricate politics. Trump may style himself a great negotiator, but he’s plainly terrible at negotiating with Congress and the myriad factions in the Republican caucus. The efforts in which he has gotten personally involved, such as the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act or deal with immigration, were abysmal failures.
The one significant piece of legislation this Congress passed, the tax-cut bill, happened with minimal involvement from the president. All those Republican factions with their own interests, squabbling over details of policy — from where Trump sits, it’s a great big bore. Like many presidents, he’s much happier when he can just issue orders and have them carried out, not having to persuade 218 members of the House and 50 senators to do what he wants them to. It’s particularly frustrating for Trump, who as the head of a private company never had to deal with shareholders or a board of directors, or anyone else who could tell him no.
That would be true in any Congress, but this particular Congress is an absolute disaster. Look at what The Post’s Mike DeBonis reports today:
Speaker Paul D. Ryan is losing his grip on the feuding House Republican conference just months before pivotal midterm elections, caught between dueling factions vying for power inside the party and facing scattered calls for his departure ahead of a planned year-end retirement.
The unrest comes in the wake of a humiliating defeat for Ryan and other GOP leaders last week, when conservatives sank a farm bill amid a broader dispute over immigration policy, and threatens to spark months of bitter infighting as Republican lawmakers try to make the case that they should be returned to power in Washington.
But there is no clear way out for the party. Numerous aides and lawmakers said Tuesday there is not a viable alternative to Ryan who can win enough support within the GOP for a clean transition before November — and there is little stomach at the moment for the messy battle that would ensue when Ryan departs.
There may even be a coup before Ryan steps down. The upshot is that Republicans have a weak leader now and are likely to have a weak leader after November, whether they hold on to the House or not. They’ll still be riven by factionalism, and it’s so bad that doing their actual job — you know, legislating — has become almost an afterthought. The one thing they desperately wanted to do was cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and now that they’ve done that, they’re pretty much out of ideas. While they’ll pass some minor bills here and there, they’ve made plain that there aren’t going to be any ambitious legislative efforts before November.
So even an ordinary president might have trouble mustering up the enthusiasm to campaign aggressively for them. But with a president as singularly focused on himself as this one, it’s even worse.
The second reason that this Trump quote gets at a larger truth is that it really may be harder to get Republican voters to care about the elections when he isn’t on the ballot.
Trump will try to transfer some of his energy to down-ballot Republicans. He’ll do some events in places where there are key races. But we know how those will go, because we’ve seen it before.
Republicans plan a rally in the district, but like every Trump event, it’s a Trump event, not an event for Candidate X at which Trump is appearing. At the beginning of his speech, he reads some perfunctory remarks about the local candidate, mouthing words about what a great guy this fellow is and how we need him in Washington. Then with that 30 seconds of drudgery out of the way, he proceeds to talk for the next hour and a half about himself.
The assembled Trump fans leave the arena with their love of Trump renewed, giving reporters the finger on their way out and talking to one another about how awesome it’ll be when the wall is built and how special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is an operative of a “deep state” conspiracy probably directed by Hillary Clinton. But they aren’t talking about their local GOP congressional candidate.
The only way Republicans can hang on to control is if Trump voters decide it’s important for them to get out and vote. But as the Mueller investigation nears its end, and with foreign policy occupying much of Trump’s attention when he isn’t rage-tweeting through “Fox & Friends,” he’s likely to care less and less about the fate of Congress as we head toward November. Now he’s actually told his own voters that it isn’t all that important to vote this year. In a way, he gave voice to what many of them might be thinking.
One of the reasons Trump won in 2016 was that in some key states, conservative voters who otherwise might have sat the election out were motivated by the idea of electing Donald Trump to get to the polls. But now Democratic voters are the motivated ones, the ones who want to vote in order to strike back at the president. It was never going to be easy for Trump to persuade his most ardent supporters to go to the polls when he’s not on the ballot. But he’s only making it harder.