President Trump flew to Missouri on Wednesday to advocate for a reform to the tax code. The issue has been a frequent subject of his rhetoric both as president and as a candidate. His remarks focused on his push to “un-rig” the economy so that average Americans see more benefit.
He did not, however, actually outline a policy proposal.
Policy has never been Trump’s thing. On the campaign trail, he embraced the idea that detailed policy white papers weren’t interesting to voters — an idea that, to be fair, is probably correct. More broadly, he talked about policy issues only in sweeping and often internally contradictory ways, preferring not to negotiate between competing interests but to instead promise that the competing interests would all emerge with a victory.
For example: Health care would cover everyone with more benefits at a lower cost! When it came time to refine those broad strokes, though, Trump didn’t have a plan. Congress developed legislation that independent analysis said would cover fewer people with fewer benefits at a higher cost, and Trump championed it. The White House argued that they’d been involved in crafting the House legislation, but after it was passed — and after Trump invited House Republicans to the White House to celebrate its passage — Trump derided it as “mean.”
President Harry Truman had a sign on a desk that famously came to symbolize the role of the presidency. It said, simply, “The buck stops here.” At the end of the day, the final decision was the president’s. The president drove the bus.
That’s not the Trump way. Whether out of indifference, a lack of familiarity with the machinations of Washington or thanks to his historically low popular support, on many issues Trump finds himself riding as a passenger.
The House health-care bill is one example. The Senate version is another. Even after Trump called the House bill mean, Senate Republicans introduced much the same legislation. As it faltered, senators flirted with perhaps simply repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it at some point in the future. Trump didn’t care which approach they took, alternately arguing for one or the other depending on which appeared to be most likely at any given moment. Ultimately, it came down to this:
ObamaCare is torturing the American People.The Democrats have fooled the people long enough. Repeal or Repeal & Replace! I have pen in hand.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2017
Repeal it, or repeal and replace it, whatever! Just do something, and I will sign it.
When it didn’t happen, Trump assumed none of the blame. He’s repeatedly disparaged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for allowing the bill to fail, attacked Sen. John McCain (though not by name) during a rally in McCain’s home state of Arizona and bashed Democrats for unilaterally refusing to back the Republican health-care efforts. The buck stopped with them — McCain, McConnell, the Democrats — not with Donald Trump.
(It’s impossible to avoid mentioning another bit of context. Trump made an unusual promise during the campaign: That he alone could fix the problems of Washington. It seems he can’t.)
Policy isn’t the only place where Trump’s following someone else’s lead. There was a little-noticed anecdote reported by the Washingtonian in July that raises the question of how much ownership Trump has over the military.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was speaking to attendees of a fundraising event last month when he relayed a story told to him by Trump about a phone call with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Mattis had called Trump, Graham said, seeking authorization to send 50 soldiers into a town in Syria.
“Why are you calling me?” Trump replied. Because it’s what had been done for eight years, Mattis explained.
Trump asked who was asking to go into the village. A major who’d graduated West Point, Mattis said. “Why do you think I know more about that than he does?” Trump asked, and then, according to Graham, hung up.
One can read this as an effort by Trump to return microcosmic control of the military back to its commanders. One can also read this as Trump being asked by his secretary of defense to make a call about a critical operation in the fight against the Islamic State and finding the request bizarre. And, what’s more, telling the story to others in an effort to evoke the same response.
Bafflement at the request is not an unreasonable reaction outside of the context of the presidency, certainly. Were an Army officer to ask me my opinion of an operation, I’d similarly defer to his expertise. Were it to go poorly, I’d point out that this wasn’t really something that fell under my area of expertise. But then, I am not the commander in chief of the United States military. Trump is the figurative head of the Republican Party and its efforts to pass legislation. He is the literal head of our armed forces.
Even on some of his executive orders, Trump has seemed oddly distant from the decision-making process. In February, the New York Times reported that Trump was angry that he hadn’t been “fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed” appointing Stephen K. Bannon to the National Security Council. After his team’s second pass at banning immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries was rejected by the courts, Trump blamed the Department of Justice for the failure.
The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017
This was Trump’s call! Even more than the House health-care bill, this was something over which Trump had control. But when it failed, the buck stopped at the desk of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
There are certainly issues in which Trump has provided guidance and direction, perhaps even areas in which he’s proposed specific changes. What we’re repeatedly seeing, though, is a president very interested in enjoying the benefits of serving in that role — but fervently disinterested in the criticisms that can result.
The president’s pitch on tax reform in Missouri included this telling section:
“I am fully committed to working with Congress to get this job done. And I don’t want to be disappointed by Congress, do you understand me?”
If tax reform — whatever it ends up being — doesn’t end up passing, it’s because Congress let Trump down. The buck? Oh, that ground to a halt at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It zipped through the Oval Office unimpeded.