Remember when that anonymous administration official caused a political explosion with a clandestine op-ed piece, smuggled out to the public, informing us that there is a heroic internal resistance toiling away at the heart of the Trump administration, rescuing the country from President Trump’s worst impulses?
With new reports indicating that Trump’s government shutdown is now beginning to threaten serious damage to the economy, it would be nice to hear from some of those people right now. Why aren’t we? Sure, since then, there have been numerous departures, presumably of those who were inclined to constrain Trump. But is there really nothing left of this patriotic resistance?
Instead, we now learn that there are people inside the administration who are actually playing to those terrible impulses in a way that appears to be keeping the shutdown going. The only thing apparently arrayed against that is the vain hope of other insiders that Trump’s ego will ultimately weigh on the side of reopening the government.
The New York Times has an alarming new article documenting the economic damage that the shutdown is beginning to inflict. White House economic advisers are now acknowledging that it’s putting a greater damper on growth than previously anticipated. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are furloughed or working without pay, and thousands of government contractors are sidelined.
With the economy already taking a hit from Trump’s impulsive and unpredictable trade war (anyone else noticing a pattern here?), economists warn that a damper on economic confidence could soon follow, possibly pushing the U.S. economy into contraction.
Given how deeply Trump’s image of his own success is tied up in the economy’s performance, some in the administration believe that if the economic indicators really start going south, that could be what forces Trump to relent.
But others inside the administration are encouraging Trump to hold fast. From the Times piece (emphasis mine):
To blunt the shutdown’s effects, the administration on Tuesday called tens of thousands of employees back to work, without pay, to process tax returns, ensure flight safety and inspect food and drugs. But some people involved in the shutdown discussions in the White House have privately said they anticipate that Mr. Trump will grow anxious about the economic impact in the coming days, accelerating an end to the stalemate. Others close to the president believe Mr. Trump has leverage and are encouraging him to stand by his demands.
We already know that those telling Trump to stick to a hard line include new White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a tea party ideologue who’s cheering at what he sees as a way to finally realize the dream of downsized government. These ranks also almost certainly include top Trump adviser Stephen Miller, whose most pressing life mission is apparently to do all he can to ensure that the United States receives as few immigrants as possible. Miller surely knows this is his last shot at getting the wall, and may also believe that there’s a possibility of forcing a deal that includes further restrictions on asylum-seeking and legal immigration, his true holy grail.
In other words, virulent anti-government and anti-immigrant advisers are conspiring to convince the president that he’s the one with all the leverage here, and that if he just remains his strong, powerful and resolute self, he will win a glorious victory. Fox News has also been regularly filling Trump’s head with visions of such an outcome.
We need to know more about these internal deliberations, however. Is anyone telling the president the opposite — that threatening great damage to the economy for the sake of a wall that won’t actually solve the most pressing crisis at the border is utter lunacy? And that Trump does not actually have the leverage here?
In that op ed written by the heroic resistance fighter inside the administration, he or she did make a valuable point, noting: “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”
Everyone following this debate knows full well that Trump wants this wall only because he fears that a loss would be too much for his base to bear at a moment when he’ll need his core supporters more than ever in the face of his mounting political and legal travails. Just look at Tuesday’s Senate hearing for William Barr, Trump’s pick for attorney general. While it wasn’t entirely reassuring, the primary takeaway from it, as Dana Milbank writes, is that Barr will not protect Trump from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Even top Republicans know full well that Trump has no endgame and no real leverage here. We know this because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly told the president this to his face in December:
McConnell told the president that he had no leverage and that, without a clear strategy, he would be “boxed in a canyon.” He tried to make the case to Trump that even if Pelosi and Schumer were interested in cutting a deal with him, they would be constrained from compromising because of internal Democratic Party pressures to oppose Trump’s wall, these officials said.
This is right, of course. Democrats cannot give Trump his wall, because it polls in the single digits among Democratic voters; because the new House Democratic caucus is unprecedentedly diverse and mostly represents parts of the country that are comfortable with immigration and globalization, meaning the wall would be a middle finger in the face of the American majority that rejected Trump’s closing campaign message of hateful anti-immigrant xenophobia; and because caving now would set a terrible precedent, paving the way for Trump to demand extortion for far worse things down the road.
But Trump simply doesn’t understand any of these basic incentives. Is anyone on the inside trying to explain any of it to him?
Apparently the opposite is happening. Which means we now have to hope that Trump’s ego takes on so much water from the worsening economic indicators that it overrides the investment his ego has in the wall. Yes, we’ve really come to this.