As president, there’s been a dearth of ownership of problems on Trump’s part. Perhaps a thousand articles have been written about how Trump fails to live up to the “buck stops here” mantra that Harry Truman made famous, including by yours truly. In part, that’s a function of Trump’s consistently demonstrating his unwillingness to accept responsibility for what happens in Washington, an abdication that stands out in sharper relief given that his party controls both the House and the Senate. His frequent protestations that the filibuster is keeping the Senate from enacting his vision is hampered by the fact that the difference-making opposition in that chamber often stems from Republicans.
Trump raised the filibuster again on Friday during what he’d billed as a “news conference” but mostly ended up being a statement to the media. That statement echoed his complaints earlier in the day that the spending bill passed by Congress didn’t include what he wanted to see. He stopped short of following through on his tweeted veto threat, though, which wasn’t terribly surprising given that the White House had on Thursday touted that Trump himself had locked up the critical parts of the funding bill.
“There are a lot of things that I’m unhappy about in this bill,” Trump said. “There are a lot of things that we shouldn’t have had in this bill. But we were, in a sense, forced — if we want to build our military, we were forced to have. There are some things that we should have in the bill. But I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again.”
“We’re very disappointed that in order to fund the military, we had to give up things where we consider, in many cases, them to be bad or them to be a waste of money,” he said later. “But that’s the way, unfortunately, right now, the system works.”
It’s trite by now, but it’s still important to note that this was specifically the logjam that Trump promised to break while he was campaigning. He was the master of dealmaking! He presented to the voters that he possessed some sort of skeleton key to unlock bipartisan and international agreement on any and every possible point of contention. He breezily dismissed partisan bickering on Capitol Hill as the sort of thing he could brush aside in an instant were he given access to the White House. He was given that access; the skeleton key apparently remained back in Trump Tower.
What’s weird about Trump’s positioning on this bill (and on past legislative stumbles, like health-care reform) is that Trump doesn’t only abdicate his claim to being a master dealmaker, he also positions himself as somehow powerless in the face of the entrenched interests in Washington.
This was the swamp guy! The dealmaker who’d drain the swamp now wrings his hands at how the swamp keeps him from making deals.
There are two theories for what’s happening here.
One is that Trump is strategically positioning himself in opposition to congressional leadership because it lets him maintain one of his favorite selling points from 2016: He’s an outsider. It’s awfully tricky for a president of the United States to position himself as oppositional to the government he runs, but one way to do that is to hint at how the establishment is keeping you from getting anything done. Trump is the guy trying to crack D.C. open, and D.C. keeps fighting back. That, this theory goes, is why Trump willingly tells America that he can’t do the thing that he said he’d do when he got to the White House. He knows where the boundaries are, and he steps outside of them to maintain his image as the guy who is necessary to shake things up.
That may be one step more complicated than it needs to be. The other theory for why Trump positions himself as weak is that he’d rather blame other people for unpopular things than worry about how that reflected on his capabilities. This is the hotel question that we led with. The manager of a hotel would, ideally, accept responsibility for problems at the hotel and assure that they’d be fixed. A manager who blames the cleaning staff and says there was nothing he could do? Not super confidence-inspiring.
That analogy is flawed, obviously, since Trump can’t fire Congress (to his chagrin). But it demonstrates the difference between two approaches to leadership.
Let’s go back to Friday’s bill. Why did Trump apparently have a change of heart overnight? According to The Post’s Josh Dawsey, because people called him and complained about it.
The reporting on Trump has consistently indicated that his views on a subject are often heavily influenced by whoever spoke with him last. When those views are critical of something he’s contemplating, his position might then align with those views. If he’s stuck having to embrace something about which he’s heard complaints, the middle path is to go along with it while complaining about it. Trump tweeted that he was considering a veto, the strongest position a president can take in opposition to a bill. And maybe he was — but even if he wasn’t he can now point to that tweet as evidence of just how unhappy he was about having to sign it. He can point to his public statement and say that it’s the Democrats’ fault.
There’s little indication, of course, that his core base of support will consider those claims skeptically. Last August, only 15 percent of those who lamented the Senate’s inability to repeal Obamacare blamed Trump for that failure. A poll in January found that nearly half of Republicans thought Trump had made progress draining the swamp, while overall a third of Americans thought he’d made the swamp worse. His approval rating among Republicans has barely budged.
Trump came to office having spent decades as the autocratic leader of the Trump Organization. The presidency doesn’t work that way. The presidency is heavily dependent on negotiation and compromise — even when the president’s party controls Congress. What the White House did on Thursday is position Trump as the leader who brought both sides together for a solution. What Trump did on Friday is position himself as a lamentably powerless observer who was forced into a position he opposed.
Either because he wants to be seen as hostile to D.C. — or because he wants to avoid blame for something people don’t like.