We should not expect that a 70-year-old billionaire who defied all the experts in winning the presidency will readily change his rhetoric, style and agenda. A man who never apologizes sees no reason to change. But let’s say, for sake of argument, that Trump accomplishes none of his top priorities (build the wall, tax reform, repeal and replace) and the Russia investigation hangs over him, threatening to implicate top campaign aides. He’s in the approval range where it is quite conceivable that the GOP loses the House, and thereby turns over the body responsible for impeachment (but not trial) to Democrats. What does he do?
First, he needs to professionalize the White House. Out go the incompetent ideologues (Stephen K. Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka), those who are in over their heads (Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer and Don McGahn, who gave poor advice on Ivanka Trump’s employment status and messed up the travel-ban executive order) and, yes, relatives. He cannot run this like a family business. Because that’s all he knows how to do, he’ll need experienced White House aides who are allowed to set up a streamlined decision-making system.
Second, no more tweeting, no more outrageous assertions gleaned from nonsense he watches on Fox News, no more campaign-style rallies where he recites his latest conspiracy theories.
Third, get the Russia stuff behind him. Release tax returns and financial records. (If he cannot do that because he is deathly afraid of what his tax returns reveal, he in essence is deciding it’s more important to keep his financial secrets than hold on to the presidency.) Offer up the names of Russian investors, buyers and lenders. Repudiate anyone on his team who had improper dealings with foreign governments. If appropriate, make certain that prosecutions proceed based on facts uncovered during the investigation. And yes, acknowledge that President Barack Obama did not wiretap him.
Fourth, undo his pattern so far of running as a populist but governing like a pro-business right-wing radical — trying to roll back Medicaid, cut funding for worthwhile programs, hand out tax cuts to the rich and let big telecoms sell our personal data. The last item is a perfect example of letting free-market ideologues win out over policy that protects the little guy. (“Outrage is growing at Republicans following a controversial vote Tuesday to repeal Internet privacy protections that were approved by the Federal Communications Commission in the final days of the Obama administration,” CNN reports. “Privacy advocates, consumer groups and the tech community are all attacking the decision. It was quickly panned by both the editorial board of The New York Times and by commenters on conservative media outlet Breitbart News.”)
When he meets with former opioid addicts and their families promising more resources days after failure of a health-care plan that would have slashed such resources, he has reached a new level of incoherence. If Republicans remain under the thumb of the Freedom Caucus, he should strike deals with Democrats and moderate Republicans on infrastructure, child care and middle-class tax cuts.
Again, such an extreme makeover is unlikely. He has never operated outside the cocoon of family or practiced anything like the sort of transparency we have described. At some point, he will be faced with the prospect of failure and disgrace (maybe even removal from office) unless he dramatically changes his style and agenda. If he keeps going the way he has, he will face a political death by a thousand cuts — investigations, scandals, failed legislation and disastrous midterm elections. At that point, the presidency may become more trouble than it is worth.