There is a familiar pattern to post-Cold War presidential administrations. Each of these presidents was first elected with his party controlling both branches of Congress. Each president proceeded to push hard and expend political capital to enact significant pieces of legislation. At some point, in reaction to single-party control over the federal government, the opposition party wins control of Congress. At that moment, the president triangulates a bit more to get bills through Congress, and focuses ever-greater amounts of energy on executive action and foreign policy.
The narrative described in the previous paragraph elides some details, but it fits the arc that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all encountered as president. The arc fits Donald Trump as well — it’s just that after only six months in office, Trump seems about as powerful as these other presidents after six years in office. He seems, in other words, like a lame duck.
Consider that over the past week, the GOP-controlled Congress failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. Even more significantly, Congress passed by overwhelming margins a bill to constrain Trump’s ability to lift sanctions against Russia. Yesterday, Senator Jeff Flake published a Bulworth-like jeremiad in Politico that slammed fellow Republicans in general and Trump in particular:
For a conservative, that’s an awfully bitter pill to swallow. So as I layered in my defense mechanisms, I even found myself saying things like, “If I took the time to respond to every presidential tweet, there would be little time for anything else.” Given the volume and velocity of tweets from both the Trump campaign and then the White House, this was certainly true. But it was also a monumental dodge. It would be like Noah saying, “If I spent all my time obsessing about the coming flood, there would be little time for anything else.” At a certain point, if one is being honest, the flood becomes the thing that is most worthy of attention. At a certain point, it might be time to build an ark.
Under our Constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos. As the first branch of government (Article I), the Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments. It is what we talk about when we talk about “checks and balances.” Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, “Someone should do something!” without seeming to realize that that someone is us. And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.
So yeah, Trump seems to have burned through any goodwill he has in Congress, which, just to repeat, is still controlled by the GOP. And it’s not like the American public likes him all that much either. There was no honeymoon in his first days, and his poll numbers have continued to erode.
Actually, I’m not being fair to prior lame ducks in comparing them to Trump. Ordinarily, lame ducks cannot get much done through Congress, but they could rely on other avenues: executive branch action, command of the bully pulpit, and taking the lead in foreign policy. Trump just seems to tweet at this point.
Lest one think I’m exaggerating, consider the evidence. As Jack Goldsmith noted in Lawfare, what is striking about Trump is how little control he seems to exercise over his own branch of government:
Trump has accomplished nothing beyond conservative judicial appointments. His administration is otherwise a comedy of errors in the exercise of executive power. What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive. Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials. I’m not talking about so-called “deep state” bureaucrats. I’m talking about senior officials in the Justice Department and the military and intelligence and foreign affairs agencies. And they are not just ignoring or contradicting him in private. They are doing so in public for all the world to see.
Writing in the New York Times, Peter Baker summarized all the domestic pushback from within the executive branch and civil society:
The repeated defiance of Mr. Trump this past week indicated diminishing forbearance. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, publicly derided by Mr. Trump as “VERY weak,” refused to resign under pressure. Senate Republicans forced the president to back off his threats by warning that they would block any effort to replace Mr. Sessions, either during their recess or through the confirmation process….
After Mr. Trump abruptly wrote on Twitter that he was barring transgender people from the military, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that the policy would not change unless the president gave a proper order. The Boy Scouts of America condemned Mr. Trump’s speech to its national jamboree as overly political and apologized to scouts, while some police organizations repudiated his call to be rougher on suspects.
Baker did not even mention the president’s efforts to restrict steel imports, which his commerce secretary said had stalled due to, I swear to God, “complexity.”
Nor did Baker mention all the ways in which the president’s foreign policy rhetoric has boomeranged back at him. As my Post colleague Fred Hiatt noted on Sunday, “Trump’s policies are turning against him, and not only because his execution has been so ham-handed. The key factor is that so many of his policies run so counter to the grain of cherished values and ideals.”
Consider that this is how Trump said he would handle North Korea yesterday:
That is the least convincing answer I have ever heard a president give about anything in my lifetime.
So, to sum up: President Trump cannot get major pieces of legislation through Congress, cannot seem to get his own Cabinet officials to respond to his whims, cannot give a speech without his hosts distancing themselves from his rhetoric, and cannot get foreign countries to defer to U.S. leadership.
Other than that, everything is peachy.
Can Trump do anything to resuscitate his administration? Maybe. Bringing in John Kelly to fire Anthony Scaramucci and instilling some order in the West Wing might be a good first step. The degree of White House dysfunction and churn is massive, leading to scandals both great and small. If his new chief of staff figures out how to discipline Trump, the president might have a better bully pulpit and less recalcitrant policy principals.
But it is worth considering that Trump’s new chief of staff might also just be another constraint that the president faces. The Associated Press noted that even as secretary of homeland security, Kelly pushed back on Trump’s more egregious suggestions. The story also noted one heck of a detail:
Mattis and Kelly also agreed in the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
It would be hard to bet against entropy in the case of Trump. His very powerlessness is likely to compound the problem. The less he can actually do, the more likely he will rage-tweet about it, and the more likely his executive branch subordinates tune him out in order to survive. This, in turn, will infuriate Trump even more.
I am sure he will tweet his complaints. Those tweets will accomplish little. In that, they have much in common with Trump himself.