In the space of a single day, President Trump went from blaming the filibuster for the crummy five-month spending deal to declaring it a “win.” At a hastily arranged news conference, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, was supposed to be spinning this as a win . However, he said explicitly what many had surmised: “I think the president is frustrated with the fact that he negotiated in good faith with the Democrats, and they went out to try and spike the football and make him look bad.” (In other words, the thin-skinned president’s ego was bruised, so he lashed out, suggesting that the Constitution needed to be changed so that he would not be out-negotiated again.) With a budget director like that, who needs political enemies, right?
As for his filibuster idea, it was quickly shot down by Senate heavyweights, including the majority leader and the whip — Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.). It was a fleeting but telling example of how Republicans are unable to conceal their contempt for Trump’s harebrained ideas.
With no basis, Mulvaney also insisted that Democrats “wanted a shutdown. We know that. They were desperate to make this administration look like we couldn’t function, like we couldn’t govern.” Umm, but then why wouldn’t a shutdown in September, which Trump seemed to be rooting for, also make it “look like we couldn’t function”?
The episode illustrated several troubling trends for Republicans.
First, the president is so mercurial that his party leaders dare not say anything or vote on anything controversial for fear of being undercut. The whirlwind of confusion he creates may have worked in business (or not, because we really don’t know how successful he is), but in government it can paralyze allies and give adversaries every reason to hold out for the deal that they want. (Think about the Iranians capitalizing on U.S. negotiators’ desperation for a nuclear deal.)
Second, the difference between a deal that is so awful that it necessitates a revision of the Constitution and one that is a “win” has nothing to do with substance. None of what Trump proposes or advocates seems to matter on the merits. Trumpcare has extra protections for people with preexisting conditions — or maybe weaker ones. Whatever. Does the speaker have the votes?
As when Mulvaney confessed that the president held back funding for miners’ benefits to get something in the deal (what he got isn’t clear), when a president advertises his concern only about himself and chalking up wins, he winds up affirming his enemies’ accusations that he is thoughtless, indifferent to others and not even embarrassed to admit his own callousness.
Third, Mulvaney, a former Freedom Caucus member, lacks the gravitas to do his job. When he exclaims that the deal was a “tremendous development for the president and a huge win from a negotiating standpoint,” one has to laugh. In the past, OMB directors such as George P. Shultz, Leon Panetta, Alice Rivlin, Mitch Daniels and Rob Portman were sober, credible figures who could engender the confidence of both parties. Mulvaney plainly does not, and only amplifies Trump’s penchant for ludicrous hyperbole.
The spending bill deal should not be an encouraging sign for Republicans as they look ahead (if they ever get over health care) to tax reform. They cannot rely on the support of the president even if his staff is involved in a deal. Trump seems not to notice or care when he is caught saying contradictory things (Bad deal! No, a win!) in the space of a few hours. And worst of all, he will settle for anything — and now Democrats know it.