Because so many of us got it so wrong in 2016, there’s a tendency among many commentators to reflexively assume President Trump possesses some kind of hidden, magical sway over the political environment that we’re all missing.
But if there’s anything that should shatter this illusion, it’s the events of this particular moment.
When Trump brashly proclaimed “total exoneration” based on his attorney general’s four-page summary of the special counsel’s findings, it was widely proclaimed that Trump and Republicans were now “turning the tables” and going “on offense” against the media and Democrats for supposedly blowing the Russia scandal. Some in the media flagellated themselves upon Trump’s demand, and others absurdly overstated the scale of Trump’s new command of the political narrative.
Yet now new reports have badly damaged that story line by revealing that some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators say Attorney General William P. Barr’s letter underplayed just how damaging their findings really are for Trump — and that they prepared summaries of their findings, expressly for public release, that Barr did not divulge.
Barr is now facing sharp criticism by some in the legal community for his handling of this affair. And Democrats are now demanding these summaries, as well as communications with the special counsel about Barr’s decision-making. Whether or not these are forthcoming, it’s clear Democrats have new openings to pressure Barr for much greater disclosure than before.
Politico now reports that some Republicans are privately frustrated with the White House for squandering whatever political lift Trump was supposed to get from the Barr letter. It isn’t just that this story line has gone off the rails; it’s also that the president has committed massive pratfalls on two other fronts: health care and immigration.
A disaster on health care
On health care, Trump abruptly threw in with a quixotic lawsuit that, if successful, would unleash immense damage throughout the health-care system, triggering anxiety among Republicans who just got wiped out in midterm elections that were all about preexisting conditions. Trump then blithely suggested Republicans would come up with a plan that would keep those protections, which unleashed further dread within the GOP.
Trump than rapidly backed down on that promise, vowing Republicans would offer a plan once they won the 2020 elections — which ensured those elections will be all about health care, again unleashing great consternation among them.
What’s crucial is why this happened. Politico reports that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appealed to Trump to embrace this lawsuit to appear to be taking control of events:
Mulvaney has complained that the White House is too often on the defensive, taking punches instead of setting the agenda in Washington, according to a person with direct knowledge of one such conversation. Mulvaney has encouraged Trump to take aggressive moves that will appeal to his base, including the new assault on Obamacare.
We also know from previous reporting that Mulvaney and others manipulated Trump into believing that if the lawsuit does wipe out the law, Trump and Republicans can heroically step in with their own plan. Trump publicly echoed this view by saying, “The Republican Party will soon become known as the party of health care.”
In other words, this partywide disaster occurred because Trump believed his voters would see him as acting decisively if he embraced the lawsuit to blow up Obamacare (never mind the people it’s helping in Trump country), and because his cluelessness about health care persuaded him Republicans could effortlessly conjure up an alternative. The irony is this affair reveals his total lack of control over events.
A disaster on immigration
On immigration, Trump dramatically threatened to close the border if Mexico doesn’t stop “letting” asylum seekers reach our southern border. But after being persuaded that border closure would unleash great economic damage, Trump backed down.
Trump is now serving up still more threats:
Trump will probably get around to this after compelling Mexico to pay for his wall.
The gap between Trump’s view of his base and reality
The serious point here is that all this is happening for the same reason the health care mess happened: There’s an enormous gap between what Trump thinks his base wants — toughness and threats, or really action of any kind — and policy reality.
In a rage over the spike in the number of families seeking asylum, Trump has to do something. But closing ports of entry wouldn’t do anything about the problem, because asylum seekers could still set foot on U.S. soil and then exercise their legal right to apply.
As for the idea that this will compel Mexico to do more, that’s also absurd. As Dara Lind explains, Trump is setting an impossibly high bar for Mexico to clear, again, because he lacks a basic understanding of the complexities at play, rendering the “threat” largely meaningless even if it were operative. One thing Trump is following through on — rescinding aid to Northern Triangle countries to force them to act somehow — risks making the problem worse.
‘But his base loves this’
At this point, someone will say, “But his base loves this,” or that “All this chaos helps Trump.” Perhaps. I think these are just more manifestations of the idea that Trump has magical political powers. His base isn’t enough to win in 2020; his party got slaughtered over immigration in 2018, once the electorate got a look at his actual policies; and, if anything, when it comes to the border, Trump increasingly represents not law and order, but cruelty and incompetence.
Similarly, on the special counsel investigation, someone will say, “But Trump is getting away with all of it.” In a sense, perhaps. But Trump was never going to get indicted for anything, and it’s becoming obvious that a lot of the special counsel’s findings are going to come out — and will likely be politically very damaging. A tremendous amount of damaging material has already been established. We have no idea where all this will end up, and every time we’re told Trump pulled a rabbit out of his hat, new events come along and skin the rabbit alive.
Trump is floundering around disastrously on multiple fronts. We need to see what’s right at the end of our noses.