On Wednesday, President Trump was asked what he wanted the country to know about the failure of the mission in Niger that killed four Special Forces soldiers earlier this month.
“Well, we’re going to look at it,” Trump replied, saying that the soldiers were there to battle the Islamic State, a “dangerous business.”
Did he authorize this mission? a reporter asked.
“No, I didn’t. Not specifically,” Trump said. “But I have generals that are great generals. These are great fighters. These are warriors.”
So you gave them authority to do this mission? another reporter asked.
“I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win,” Trump replied.
If that sounds a lot like a commander in chief hinting that he doesn’t bear blame for the soldiers’ deaths, there’s a good reason for that: That’s what’s happening. Again. When a Navy SEAL was killed in Yemen earlier this year, the White House suggested that the plan had been drawn by the Obama administration — in other words, that it wasn’t Trump’s fault.
The “I alone can fix it” candidate has evolved into the “I didn’t do it” president. And no group is more likely to be blamed by Trump for missteps or problems than Congress — even members of Congress from his own party.
When Trump’s promise to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsed, Trump blamed the House (for passing a “mean” bill) and the Senate (for not passing anything at all). He was sitting there with his pen, ready to sign something, but never got anything to sign. Who can blame him for that?
This strategy leverages the relationship that Trump fostered with his base over the course of 2016. Bad news about Trump wasn’t actually bad news, it was fake. Also anything he said or did, Hillary Clinton had said or done something worse. A system evolved, like an oyster forming a pearl: When something negative happened, supporters and sympathetic media quickly built up a shell around Trump to insulate him from its repercussions.
Layered on top of that was Trump’s explicitly running against the Republican establishment embodied by Republicans on Capitol Hill. Trump consistently polled better than Republican leaders in Congress among members of his own party, a reflection both of his rhetoric and his party’s antipathy to its career politicians.
When Trump won, Congress got a boost in the eyes of Republicans, who apparently believed a new day was dawning in Washington. As Gallup noted earlier this week, though, that affection rapidly faded.
We have a concrete example of how that can work to Trump’s benefit.
New polling from Fox News released Wednesday addressed views of the Affordable Care Act (that is, Obamacare). Most Americans generally view the law favorably, but three-quarters of Republicans have a strongly unfavorable view of it.
The Trump administration has taken concrete steps to undercut the law in the absence of being able to overhaul it. That includes slashing funding for enrollment outreach, stopping participation in enrollment events and spurring premium increases by cutting off a reimbursement mechanism for insurers. Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that most Americans believe that Trump and his party now own Obamacare and are responsible for its fate, suggesting that this strategy may not pay off over the long run.
But that Fox poll asked a more nuanced question, with more options. If the health-care system falters, who is to blame? Trump? Republicans in Congress? Obama? The most common answer was Republicans in Congress, the pick of 3 in 10 respondents. Only 2 in 10 blamed Trump. But among Republicans the responses were even more lopsided: Only 5 percent of Republicans think Trump would be to blame if health care gets significantly worse.
It’s fair to blame Congress for not passing legislation, certainly. But consider who Republicans think should get the credit if health care improves. About 3 in 10 think congressional Republicans get the credit for improvement — but 40 percent think Trump does.
Heads, Trump wins. Tails, Mitch McConnell loses. Just among Republicans, anyway. Interestingly, the exact same percentage of Americans overall — 19 percent — would blame Trump for a failure as give him credit for success.
The intent of the American system is that all parties work together to address problems, sharing the credit and blame to some extent between lawmakers and the executive. Trump’s Washington, though, operates differently. The buck stops with him when it’s a good buck — the bad bucks slip past his desk to someone else. It’s how he ran his campaign; it’s how he runs the country.
And, at least within his own party, it works.