President Trump's most faithful supporters like to believe he's always a step ahead of the media and the political establishment — that he's playing three-dimensional chess while we're stuck on checkers. Where we see utter discord, they see carefully orchestrated chaos.
This week should disabuse absolutely everybody of that notion.
On two issues — health care and calling the families of dead service members — the White House has shown itself to be clearly unmoored, careening back and forth based upon the unhelpful and impulsive comments and tweets of its captain.
On the more substantial issue of health care, Trump apparently told Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to craft a deal to replace the Affordable Care Act subsidies for insurers covering low-income Americans. Trump then canceled the subsidies and explained that the money was only making insurers rich (it's not). Then he suggested he would support Alexander's deal. Then he apparently realized that those two things were completely inconsistent, and he backed off his support for the deal, leaving Alexander holding the bag and apparently (understandably) puzzled.
On Gold Star families, Trump responded to a question Monday about why he hadn't said anything about four soldiers killed in Niger by accusing his predecessors of not calling such families. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls — a lot of them didn't make calls,” Trump said. “I like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it.”
That drew quick and full-throated rebukes from former Barack Obama aides, and Trump said later in the same news conference that he wasn't so sure about his own claim. “I don't know if he did,” Trump said of Obama making calls. “No, no, no, I was told that he didn't often.”
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, and a Democratic congresswoman accused Trump of being insensitive during a call she witnessed to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger. Trump promptly suggested the congresswoman was lying and said he had “proof.” By Wednesday afternoon, though, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House had no tapes of the calls — i.e. no proof. And by that point, several of the 20 Gold Star families whose loved ones have died since Trump took office told the media — including The Washington Post — that Trump had never actually called them. Another one said Trump promised the family $25,000 but never followed up. (The White House now says the check has been sent.)
In other words, Trump:
- Brought this issue up of his own accord even when he hadn't called some of the very few (relative to his predecessors) new Gold Star families he's seen lose loved ones on his watch. While more than 2,500 service members were killed in action during Obama's tenure, only 20 have died in Trump's first nine months.
- Claimed “proof” that his own White House admits he doesn't have.
- Rehashed the death of his own chief of staff's son, suggesting Obama didn't call John F. Kelly when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Kelly hasn't commented.
- Put the White House in the position of disputing the accounts of Gold Star families.
If you think any of these things were planned, you are kidding yourself. And these are not distractions; if anything they cast even more light on Republicans' failure to restructure health care and the situation in Niger, about which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has alleged the Trump administration isn't being forthcoming.
There is no game plan on any of this; it's Trump simply floating from one controversy to the next and making things worse by flying off the handle and saying untrue things. Trump's controversies are usually at least within the realm of plausible deniability; these examples just seem totally careless and haphazard.