Correction: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly reported that almost 80 percent of stocks are owned by just 8 percent of people. As of 2013, the 10 percent of households with the highest wealth owned 81 percent of stocks. This version has been corrected.
Monday morning marks the start of the first full week of President Trump’s vacation. After the rockiest first six months of any modern presidency, a new chief of staff has offered a glimmer of hope — just in time for August to provide time to regroup. August: Washington’s quiet month for vacation, reflection and recuperation.
Or not. Veterans of George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s White Houses will tell you: August is the most dangerous month. For a White House such as President Trump’s, already under assault on many fronts, August could be the final straw.
The two most devastating mistakes of Bush’s presidency both came in August. On Aug. 6, 2001, Bush received the now-famous warning in his daily briefing, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”; Bush’s lack of response to that “vacation month” warning drove criticism of his handling of the 9/11 attacks for the rest of his presidency. Four years later, in late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and demolished Bush’s second term.
Ask Obama White House staffers about August, and you will get shell-shocked stares. It was August 2009 when the tea party opposition to health-care reform exploded and turned the Affordable Care Act into political kryptonite. August 2011 saw budget and fiscal talks collapse, cementing the “wasted year” of Obama’s tenure. In August 2014, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson and the Islamic State wreaked havoc in Erbil and Mosul. During Obama’s final August, the president was slammed for not interrupting his vacation to visit flooded Louisiana.
For Trump, August 2017 is particularly perilous.
Republican senators and House members will get earfuls from constituents back home all month. Sure, Trump can continue to tweet that the stock market is high and the unemployment rate low. But when 81 percent of stocks are owned by just 10 percent of the people, and job creation in Trump’s first five months lags Obama’s last five months, presidential tweeting can hardly insulate these members from a blast of August political heat.
Trump’s Hill allies are heading home for August without delivering on health-care reform — and worse, having to defend votes for a failed, unpopular bill. Trump has not even put forward serious plans on tax reform, infrastructure, child care, outsourcing — all “first 100 days” promises, still far from filled. More voters are growing weary of the rising tide of scandals surrounding Trump. Congressional Republicans are going to find angry constituents and local leaders in August. Trump’s sagging fortunes in Congress will sink further.
In addition to this metaphorical tide of unrest, there is the danger of a literal August surge: a hurricane. The perpetual crises swirling around the White House to date have been entirely self-imposed; we have not seen how Team Trump will cope with outside challenge. The risk that the first such challenge will be a hurricane in August is not small. Four of the five most intense hurricanes to make landfall in U.S. history have struck over a 12-day span in late August; virtually every August the past decade has seen some sort of serious storm.
Would the Trump administration respond effectively? The president just stripped the Department of Homeland Security of its leader, was blasted by the outgoing head of hurricane forecasting for how his budget cuts could set back this work, and lacks any experience (as a senator or governor) with navigating a difficult disaster response. As a political matter, a botched hurricane response in the Gulf Coast or Florida would see Trump criticized — not by blue-state leaders he can mock or ignore — but by key members of his own coalition.
And as the administration confronts an array of August dangers — global, political, natural — it will have to do it short-handed. Even well-staffed, well-functioning administrations have trouble in August because key players take vacations, creating a “nobody home” dynamic when flash points erupt. For Trump, badly understaffed at the White House and terribly behind in filling key posts in federal agencies, this risk is intensified. About half the Cabinet departments lack a single Senate-confirmed official to take charge if the secretary is away.
Flashes of this challenge have already been evident. Trump’s health-care bill first floundered in the House when the Kushner family was off skiing for spring break, in March; it suffered serious damage when Jared and Ivanka skipped town during its Senate launch to rub elbows in Sun Valley. What will happen during August’s larger hiatus of high-level personnel, as troubles mount in North Korea, the Middle East and on yet-unknown domestic fronts?
April may be the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot once claimed. But for Team Trump — underachieving, underprepared and understaffed — August is the most dangerous.