It’s not just that Donald Trump ran for president with a lack of interest in the details of policy or legislating, though both of those things were apparent from the outset of his campaign. Standing next to his helicopter near the Iowa State Fairgrounds in August 2015, Trump dismissed policy statements as something the press cared more about than voters. When asked how he would get legislation passed in Congress, a much different task than running a company, he waved away such pedestrian concerns. He’d twist their arms the way he forced permits through the New York City Council.
But, again, it wasn’t just that he was uninterested in the traditional systems by which laws were passed in Washington. It was that he embraced that disinterest as a solution. He was an Outsider, coming to D.C. without the encumbrances of having done this before. This was framed by his supporters as though he was the new sheriff in town, prepared to think outside the box. Others framed it less generously, as though a tourist had wandered onto an aircraft carrier and decided he was going to shoot down some MiGs.
Trump’s central pitch, redistilled and redistributed on a near-daily basis over the course of 2016, was a simple one: I am a dealmaker, and I will make deals. It was a simple premise and his core campaign argument, simpler and more important than “make America great again.” Once you bought into the idea that Trump’s business acumen would translate into handshake agreements solidifying the future of our country, you were bought into the idea that he could do anything. Which is what he promised. He made sweeping assertions of what he could do, powered — not inhibited — by the objections of realists.
“Health care that covers everyone for less cost and with better options!” Trump would promise. But that’s impossible!, the realists would respond. “That’s because you don’t know how to make deals,” Trump would reply. If you bought into the idea that Trump could close the deal, you bought into the idea that the naysayers simply didn’t get it.
Trump can’t close the deals.
What deals has he made? He got a conservative appointment confirmed for the Supreme Court — after having Neil M. Gorsuch recommended to him by outside groups and after the Senate changed its rules to assure the confirmation. He’s signed a lot of executive orders, but those aren’t deals and some of those were blocked by the courts. He discussed a cease-fire in Syria during his sit-down with Vladimir Putin, which seems to be holding.
But legislation? No.
On Monday night, the most recent example: Two more Republican senators came out in opposition to the Obamacare overhaul that was awaiting their votes. The senators’ announcement was especially brutal because it came shortly after Trump hosted a dinner during which he hoped to persuade other senators to back the bill. Trump was late to the effort and was wooing the wrong people when the rug was pulled out from under him.
The president is anxious to assure the public that he remains the competent deal-maker-in-chief, tweeting brash, overconfident and contradictory assertions about the future of health-care legislation after the bill’s collapse. (On Monday night, it was “REPEAL failing ObamaCare now.” On Tuesday morning, “[a]s I have always said, let ObamaCare fail.”) And yet, as we noted on Monday, Trump didn’t really do very much to ensure its passage.
That the bill was in trouble wasn’t a secret. For some time now, it’s been clear that Senate Republicans had a remarkably thin margin of error on their effort to get the necessary 50 votes for passage. But Trump didn’t do much to try to solidify his party’s position. He traveled to France last week for a Bastille Day celebration, a trip that had been planned for some time but does not appear to have been unmissable. When he returned to the country over the weekend, he literally spent hours over two days watching a golf tournament at his private club in New Jersey. Where was the dealmaking?
Two things likely happened. The first is that Trump quickly learned that the 535 members of Congress operate from a different position of concern than the people with whom he used to make business deals. The bottom line, here, is the concern of voters, something that varies from person to person. There’s never a one-on-one agreement. That Trump also revealed himself to be an untrustworthy ally — saying, for example, that the House bill he took credit for helping to pass was “mean” — no doubt made his job harder. Why take a tough vote on a bill if you’re going to get burned for it by a president seeking to cover his own tail?
That’s the other thing that happened. One reason Trump likely never embraced the Senate bill was that he certainly knew it wasn’t very popular. And among the motivations that power the president, few are as important as the desire to be viewed positively.
Theoretically, the buck stops at the president’s desk. But Trump seems more than happy to let the blame fall elsewhere: On his Republican allies, on the Democrats, on Hillary Clinton.
There’s an anecdote that didn’t get much attention last week that’s relevant here. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was addressing a small crowd in D.C. when he told a story about a conversation between Trump and his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis. From Washingtonian’s report:
“We’re asking permission to send 50 of our soldiers into a village outside Raqqa,” Mattis told Trump, according to Graham. “Why are you calling me?” Trump replied. “I don’t know where this village is at.” Mattis told him, “Well, that’s what we’ve done for the last 8 years.”
Trump, Graham said, then asked, “Who’s asking to go into that village?” Mattis told him, “A major, first in his class at West Point.”
“’Why do you think I know more about that than he does?’” Graham said Trump asked. “And then he hung up.”
In one sense, that’s understandable: The guy on the ground has more intimate familiarity with what’s happening than does Trump. But in two senses, it’s amazing. First, Trump is the ultimate decision-maker on military matters, a role he embraces in the abstract but that, here, seemed to take him aback. But, second, we can easily see a way in which this is handled if the incursion into that village goes south: Well, Trump might say, it’s not my fault.
During the 2016 Republican convention, one year ago this week, Trump promised that only he could fix what was wrong in Washington. That it was he who could go to Washington, crack skulls and make change. A year later, that’s not how it has played out. As some might have predicted, Trump’s lack of familiarity with the process of legislating and his over-the-top promises on what he could deliver didn’t pan out. He came to Washington pledging to be the ultimate dealmaker, who would make all of your dreams come true.
Turns out Donald Trump was just another politician, making promises he couldn’t keep.