President Trump almost admitted Monday that he is failing on his agenda. Then he caught himself.
“We're not getting the job done,” he began, before quickly shifting course. “And I'm not going to blame myself. I'll be honest: They are not getting the job done,” he said, referring to Congress.
You hear that, Congress? Trump is washing his hands of you. That “bully pulpit” that Theodore Roosevelt talked about? Overrated. Lyndon Johnson's physical intimidation of wavering lawmakers? Trump shouldn't be expected to dirty his hands. Harry Truman's “buck stop here?” Nope, it actually stops over there, down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Points for honesty, I guess. If there was one microcosm of Trump's attitude toward blame acceptance, this was it. In the span of a few seconds, Trump served notice that he separates himself from any responsibility for what Congress does or doesn't do. It's all on them.
This is quite a different tune than Trump was singing when President Obama was in the same situation in his first two years (yes, Obama had more Democratic senators, but he only had 60 votes for a few months):
Obama's complaints about Republicans stopping his agenda are BS since he had full control for two years. He can never take responsibility.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2012
And while this might be the most transparent bit of blame-shifting from Trump yet, it's certainly not the first time he's done it:
- He has talked repeatedly about the really “bad hand” he was dealt as president.
- He blamed the far right for an Obamacare repeal bill failing in the House in March.
- In June, he said the Justice Department should have defended his more stringent travel ban rather than the “watered down” version after the latter was halted by a court.
- He blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for the debt-ceiling “mess,” saying they should have tied the increase to a Veterans Affairs bill — despite never lodging that idea publicly.
- He has repeatedly suggested Puerto Rico is somewhat to blame for its current crisis, especially given how faulty its economic situation and infrastructure were before Hurricane Maria.
- He has blamed Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) for the failure of the Senate to pass the health-care bill, suggesting that McCain switched his vote at the last moment unbeknownst to anyone (wrong) and that it would have passed if Cochran weren't hospitalized (wrong again).
- He blamed his staff for feeding him a bad talking point about the size of his election win.
- He suggested “the generals” were responsible for the botched raid in Yemen that led to the death of Ryan Owens. “They lost Ryan,” he said, again pulling out the t-word.
(This is necessarily a partial list.)
Look: It's fine to note that things aren't completely under your control as president — we don't have a dictator — but presidents do get a chance to exert influence over the things the country talks about and Congress passes. The president can bring to bear plenty of pressure when it comes to swaying wavering lawmakers. When it comes to health care, Trump needed only to help win over skeptical Republican senators.
But Trump has shown considerably less interest in providing a helping hand to McConnell and Ryan than he has in absolving himself of the blame for their failures to produce. He has frequently given conflicting signals about what he wants to see from the health-care effort, has feuded with senators who provide key votes — often after the bills have already failed — and has generally shown very little interest in policy details. It's one thing to not be a details guy; it's another to seem completely clueless about what's working its way through Congress at any given moment. Trump is almost always far to the latter end of the spectrum.
Shortly after making the comments above, Trump also suggested he understood why his former top White House aide, Steve Bannon, would target a bunch of Republican incumbents in primaries. That's a message that has to have the National Republican Senatorial Committee screaming right now. But Trump seems to be attempting in one fell swoop something he's failed to do on an individual basis when it has counted — win the votes of key lawmakers using his bully pulpit.
And at it's core, it's more a sign of desperation than it is of his power as president. To be clear: The president admitted Monday that he's been neutered in the Oval Office. And whether you think he shoulders lots of blame or even just a little, he certainly carries at least some of the blame for that.