One might have expected the pattern to change, though, given that his White House and campaign staffs are more uniformly right-wing die-hards than ever, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who used to chair the tea party-sympathetic Freedom Caucus in the House, and new campaign adviser Steve Cortes, who thinks Trump’s response to Black Lives Matter should have been more “fascist.” But on the Sunday talk shows, these would-be rhetorical bomb-throwers have found themselves stuck defusing just as many land mines as their predecessors.
One walkback involved Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.). On Thursday, Trump falsely suggested that she “doesn’t meet the requirements” to be vice president, referring to a widely denounced op-ed that argued that the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants might not be a citizen by birth. In a news conference Saturday, Trump tried a partial walkback by saying his campaign wouldn’t be “pursuing” the issue, but still declined to state Harris was eligible.
On Sunday, White House representatives blamed the media for the controversy. “Y’all have spent more time on it than anybody in the White House has talking about this,” Meadows told CNN. Cortes insisted on “Fox News Sunday” that “members of the media … are trying to create a controversy that simply doesn’t exist.” But unlike Trump, when asked whether Harris was eligible to be vice president, both simply — and correctly — responded, “Yes.”
The other walkback involved the president’s breathtaking admission that he was opposing an emergency bailout for the U.S. Postal Service to keep millions of Americans from being able to vote by mail in the fall. Rather than blame the media in this instance, Meadows and Cortes tried to change the president’s meaning. “The president doesn’t have a problem with anybody voting by mail, if you would look at it in terms of maybe a no-excuse absentee ballot,” Meadows said. “What he opposes is universal mail-in ballots, where you send millions of ballots out to registered voters across the country, even those that don’t request it.” Cortes likewise said on Fox News, “We believe in absentee voting, we believe in early voting.” Both insisted a universal mail-in system would be, in Meadows’s words, “asking for a disaster.”
There are two glaring problems here: First, Trump’s opposition to a USPS bailout endangers absentee voting as well. Second, there’s no evidence that universal mail-in systems are susceptible to fraud. Five states — Oregon, Utah, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii — already vote largely or almost entirely by mail, without problems. Indeed, when CNN’s Jake Tapper noted that “there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud,” Meadows could respond only, “There’s no evidence that there’s not either. That’s the definition of fraud, Jake.”
Again, this latest instance of Trump embarrassing himself and his staff scrambling to cover for him is only remarkable in the sense of who’s doing the covering. No longer are there any party veterans such as Reince Priebus or Sean Spicer to take the fall. Nor are there establishment hands such as John Kelly to take the blame. As my colleague Dana Milbank pointed out, “Under Meadows, Trump seems to have no guardrails.” And yet what Meadows and others have found out is now that they’re in positions of responsibility, Trump is still Trump and still a walking disaster. The band members are different, but the song remains the same. And judging from the president’s poll numbers, Americans don’t like the performance any better.