One of Spoiler Alerts’ running themes this summer has been the historic weakness of Donald Trump as president. As I noted four weeks ago:
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.
Things have gotten worse for Trump since then. His foreign economic policy has hit multiple snags. He is woefully behind in staffing his administration. His polling numbers have continued to trend south. Trump’s own Cabinet officers and White House staffers are now publicly distancing themselves from his rhetoric. Despite reports of Trump’s frustration with these public rifts, he has yet to fire anyone this week. Indeed, as Politico pointed out earlier in the week, Trump is too politically weak to fire anyone:
Said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, “In the normal course of things, a secretary of state would be fired an hour after saying such a thing on national TV.”
The president, whose approval ratings have dropped into the 30-percent range and who has lost a raft of senior staff members, is loath to get rid of anyone right now, one adviser said. Some close to Trump note that he needs Cohn and Tillerson, seen as stabilizing forces in his administration, more than they need him at this point.
So it would seem that this is the weakest president that the country has experienced since the days of John Tyler. Which would help explain why FiveThirtyEight’s Julia Azari compared Trump to “a throwback to a previous era: Trump is — in some ways — a normal 19th-century president.”
But at this moment, it is worth pausing to appreciate that even a commander in chief as weak and feckless as Trump still has policy accomplishments. For example, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias thoroughly documented the considerable deregulatory efforts earlier this month:
Trump doesn’t tweet about it much, but it turns out that making it harder for people to avoid financial rip-offs is something of a passion for the Trump administration. He has, for example, gutted enforcement of an Obama-era rule that would have made it illegal for financial advisers to deliberately rip off their customers …
At the behest of the chemical industry, the Trump Environmental Protection Agency has approved the continued sale of a pesticide that poisons children’s brains, and at the behest of for-profit colleges, the Trump Education Department is rolling back regulations offering debt relief to students misled by scam schools.
The rollback of Obama-era regulations has continued apace. Indeed, this might be the Trump administration’s most significant policy achievement to date.
Now I am sure there are earnest fans of deregulation happy about the Trump administration’s accomplishments in this area. Ironically, however, one Trump supporter who will not be enthused by any of this is … Donald Trump.
Trump craves big, tangible achievements as bright, shiny objects to brag about. He craves them so much that he does not necessarily care what is in the bills he wants passed. He has displayed a willingness to bargain badly just to try to get a such accomplishments. But his offensive rhetoric, bullying demeanor and complete lack of strategic thought handicaps him so badly that he will be unable to get anything good passed by Congress or agreed upon by other countries.
All Trump can proclaim as a success is the deregulatory efforts of his executive branch. These are negative rather than positive accomplishments, in that they reverse what prior presidents have done. They are still achievements, but they are not sexy, and they’re not exactly populist either. As Yglesias writes, “The winners here are not ‘anxious’ working-class heartlanders, but the owners and managers of big companies who have the government off their backs and barely even need to defend their stances in public with Trump’s antics sucking up the bulk of attention.”
Trump is a weak president, but even his administration has accomplished some things. But they are not things Trump can brag about publicly.
This must drive him crazy.