The Trump White House is imploding. The only real thing to debate in that sentence is the tense. “Has imploded” is certainly arguable. Still, as the events of the past few days have shown, implosion, in politics as in physics, is not a moment but a process. The damage continues. It builds on itself as the edifice collapses.
The temptation, of course, is to begin with Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci and his profane rant against soon-to-be-former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
But the more powerful, more ominous evidence of implosion and its consequences is found in the collapse of congressional efforts to repeal/replace/do something, anything, with the Republican Party’s chief nemesis over the past seven years: the Affordable Care Act.
Who could have imagined, on the day after the election, or even on Inauguration Day, that this would end so ignominiously?
You might be asking why the Senate’s failure to move repeal forward, by a single vote in the early morning hours, signifies presidential weakness. Indeed, back in the days when Donald Trump’s election seemed fanciful even as the Republican Party prepared to award him the nomination, GOP lawmakers offered a soothing vision of a Trump presidency: They would navigate the policy differences and political chasms and emerge with legislation to be duly signed by the inexperienced, compliant president. Health care, check. Tax reform, check. And so on.
That it didn’t work out that way, or certainly hasn’t so far, is evidence, in part, of the unavoidable complexities of health-care reform and the ideological schisms within the party.
But it also illustrates a truism of modern American politics: Moving forward with a complicated or ambitious legislative agenda requires the propulsive force of presidential leadership. Troops do not perform effectively without a general at the helm, a leader they both respect and fear.
A master legislative tactician such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can get you only so far; the rules of the Senate make it easier for McConnell to block (see, for example, the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland) than to enact. A president distracted by infighting, inattentive to detail and sagging in the polls can announce all he wants that “I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand.” No wobbly lawmaker is going to rally to that cry.
While health-care reform fizzled, Trump burned. First over his “weak” and “beleaguered” attorney general, then over the hapless, doomed-from-the-start Priebus. Will the president’s new choice for chief of staff, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, fare much better? Don’t count on it.
Daily, the president’s boundless anger seems to find a new target: He is variously unhappy with his lawyer/his strategist/his press secretary. There is always someone else for Trump to blame, never himself.
He constructed, enabled, even encouraged an organization lacking clear lines of authority and ridden with factions. “The fish stinks from the head down,” Scaramucci told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and while he meant to attack Priebus, he was more on target than he intended. As dogs have an uncanny tendency to resemble their owners, so Scaramucci channels Trump — bullying, vulgar, egotistical and undisciplined. In a week on the job, he has achieved the impossible: making us yearn for Sean Spicer.
Every new White House has its rocky moments and personnel readjustments, some more than others. Every White House suffers from factionalism and infighting, to some degree. But Washington and the country have never seen anything like this. The truest — and scariest thing — that Scaramucci said on CNN was that “there are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.”
So a staff shake-up of the sort that Trump tweeted out Friday afternoon is the ordinary solution to a White House in trouble — but this is no ordinary White House problem. Even if Kelly is theoretically empowered in a way that Priebus never was — to have all staff report to him, control access to the Oval Office, above all to say “no” to Trump — it would be naive to expect some sudden transformation in the president himself.
Trump appears incapable of allowing his presidency to be saved, primarily because he is incapable of and unwilling to change. He will not allow himself to be governed; he cannot govern himself. Perhaps things will settle down, but that is hard to imagine. The past six months feel like prologue to even more turbulence.
For example, CNN describes national security adviser H.R. McMaster as “increasingly isolated” and at odds with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, worrying those of us calmed by the idea of an adult buffer against presidential pique. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, publicly undercut by Trump, took time off last week, generating rumors of a “Rexit” to come.
At this point, the remaining mystery is how, when and how badly this disaster of a presidency will end.