President Trump departed this morning to visit the southern border as part of his floundering effort to sell his wall, but he doubts it will do any good. In private, he reportedly groused that “it’s not going to change a damn thing,” but added that he’d been talked into it by his communications advisers, including Bill Shine, who just happens to also be a former executive at Fox News.
It’s telling that Shine in particular advised this trip, and in that context, Trump’s gripe contains a real insight: The trip is clearly less about rallying public support that might pressure Democrats to relent on the wall — since that won’t work — and more about projecting what might be called optics of manly action. A former Fox executive surely understands that what Trump’s supporters need to see right now is Trump appearing to act decisively, that is, appearing to take control of events.
Yet it’s increasingly obvious that Trump’s gestures of action are largely empty ones — and not just on the wall. This is evident on two of the biggest running stories right now — Trump’s flirtation with declaring a national emergency to build the border barrier without congressional authorization, and his legal team’s noisy public threats to try to quash public release of the special counsel’s findings.
Trump just raged on Twitter against Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), describing him as “Cryin Chuck,” while denying reports that he slammed the table before storming out of a meeting with Democrats. At that meeting, Trump made no headway, but now he’s compensating for it by publicly lashing out with juvenile name-calling, which is supposed to show his supporters that he’s “fighting.”
Trump may very well declare a national emergency to build the wall. But new reporting indicates that even if he does, it’s not even remotely clear how much of his wall he’d get from it. As Charlie Savage details in a must-read piece, there are multiple legal obstacles standing in his way. It isn’t just that the presidential declaration itself would face a legal challenge that would go all the way to the Supreme Court; it would also face multiple lawsuits from landowners along the border.
As one legal expert puts it to Savage: “We’re going to be in 2020 before this is resolved.” It very well might get blocked by then, but even if Trump did prevail on all these fronts, it’s unclear how much wall he’d have time to add before his reelection campaign, if any. And of course, he might lose, which would mean a Democratic president would halt the project.
Still, the act of declaring of a national emergency to force the wall issue would itself likely drive his supporters into a state of delirium. Which, for Trump, would be the real point of it. This is also the real point of threatening to do it.
Trump and Republicans take themselves hostage
Trump also just raged at the media for supposedly exaggerating Republican splintering over his shutdown strategy, insisting there is “GREAT unity” among them. For Trump supporters, any whiff of weakness or failure on his part can be instantly dispelled by a tweet describing it as a “fake news” fabrication (which also has the virtue of portraying him as “fighting”).
But the reality is quite different. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reports that even some Republicans believe Trump’s position is weakening, and they have discerned a flaw in his strategy. These Republicans point out that behind the scenes, the administration is taking steps to mitigate the impact of the shutdown on real people, such as keeping tax refunds and food stamps flowing, which they say illustrates that the shutdown is rebounding on Trump.
As one GOP strategist puts it: “Republicans have pulled a gun and taken themselves hostage. When you’re mitigating the negative impacts against yourself, you have a political problem.”
Meanwhile, Politico reports that even people in the White House believe this dynamic is unlikely to change, because they recognize that Democrats have zero incentive to give him his way.
Sorry, Trump. Mueller’s findings will become public.
On another front, The Post reports that Trump’s legal team has hatched a new strategy to prevent portions of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s imminent report from seeing the light of day. The idea is to exert executive privilege to argue that Trump’s confidential discussions with advisers detailed in the report should not be released, which Democrats fear could limit what the public learns about Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice.
Justice Department regulations stipulate that the attorney general has discretion to decide how much of the findings to reveal to Congress, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani is loudly threatening to demand that Trump’s team sees the report even before the attorney general makes the call. But even if Trump’s pick for attorney general gets confirmed and sides with Trump, House Democrats will be able to subpoena the findings. And one legal expert tells The Post it’s very likely the courts would rule for public release, as befell Richard Nixon.
But here again, the threat of action by Giuliani has its own obvious importance, conveying to Trump’s supporters that his team is at war with Mueller.
The grand illusion
Now, none of this means these actions won’t have an impact. They will. The crucial distinction here is that, even if they don’t produce the outcomes Trump wants, they will still cause great harm. As historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer detail, this goes to the heart of the “imperial presidency,” which former presidents like Barack Obama and George W. Bush did empower in their own ways, but which has broken new frontiers under Trump.
Kruse and Zelizer note a fascinating paradox about Trump’s imperial presidency: He is shredding norms in a way that will damage our institutions, while also not getting a great deal of what he wants. Yet crucial to his grand illusion is creating the impression that his norm-shredding is producing results: "The imperial presidency is, in many ways, propped up by media partisans who insist that the naked emperor has glorious new clothes.”
Have a look at what “Fox and Friends” aired this morning:
Trump is not making headway on his wall, and he probably can’t stop public release of Mueller’s findings. But the media partisans are busy putting glorious new clothes on the naked emperor.