President Trump has bullied his way through his adult life. Screaming, suing, manipulating the tabloid press and allegedly chiseling employees, he has used wealth, power and a volatile personality to get his way. He bluffed, dodged, insulted and stormed his way through the campaign. For a time, his standing with the GOP base, the fear of nasty tweets (yes, politicians are wimps) and the hope that they could use him to pass their agenda led to a pathetic level of deference from GOP lawmakers.
Now the president’s poll numbers are in the 30s. He has failed on his signature legislative item (repealing and replacing Obamacare), fired a slew of advisers, been compelled to sign Russia sanctions legislation and failed to halt the special counsel’s investigation into his and his campaign’s Russian affiliations. And now the ice has cracked, the power is ebbing and lawmakers, civil servants, outside groups are unimpressed — and more than willing to shove back:
- The Boy Scouts and the Mexican government call him out for lying about phone calls that never happened. (But they were not lies, insisted Sarah Huckabee Sanders!)
- Lawmakers have no time for his mean-spirited and economically disastrous plan to chop immigration numbers in half; they disregard his call to plunge back into health care.
- Republicans tell him to stop berating the attorney general.
- Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev taunts Trump on his acquiescence to sanctions legislation: “The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way.”
- The military shrugs when Trump tries to throw out transgender military personnel via a tweet; meeting participant(s) then leak about his petulant and ignorant rant in a strategy session about Afghanistan.
- Throughout the executive branch, employees who recognize the extent of the Trump team’s recklessness and incompetence are more than willing to leak about it. So far we’ve seen State Department employees reveal gross mismanagement, Justice Department attorneys pull back the curtain on hostility to affirmative action and Environmental Protection Agency scientists denounce Trump’s embrace of anti-science myths (“Today the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth,” wrote Elizabeth Southerland, director of science and technology in the Office of Water, in her farewell letter. “The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities.”)
Moreover, by virtue of his string of failures, Trump has been compelled to empower a new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to rein in himself and his senior staffers. Trump is now in a real sense at the mercy of Kelly (perhaps the only person who can rescue his sinking presidency), who is depriving him of his free-wheeling — chaotic, some would say — operation, insisting on vetting information he gets (!) and allowing national security adviser H.R. McMaster to fire loyalists of Stephen K. Bannon. (How the wacky conspiratorialist and a plotter in the “unmasking” non-scandal lasted this long is a stunning indication of the level of the West Wing’s unprofessionalism.)
Trump is a diminished figure, a weakened force after only about six months in office. Once the aura of presidential authority is gone, others (Congress, the chief of staff, third parties) become more and more daring in challenging the president, more willing to speak out (on the record or via leaks) and more insistent on taking matters into their own hands. Trump got to the presidency by faking his way through the campaign, pretending to have skills and knowledge he obviously does not. As he now fakes “being in charge,” watch for him to lash out at real and perceived affronts, step up the number of self-congratulatory lies (so many imaginary phone calls!) and strain even harder to recapture the adulation he experienced on the campaign trail by pandering to his less-educated, rural white base. Will he completely blow up his presidency before Kelly can assert some semblance of order? The race is on; Kelly better work fast.