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Trump caves — but not before putting the GOP in an ugly spot

President Trump on Dec. 27 signed the $900 billion coronavirus stimulus and government spending bill into law, averting a government shutdown. (Video: Reuters)

To the extent Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency was about something besides raw partisanship and a desire to shake up Washington, it was touted as putting a dealmaker in charge. Trump tried to assure voters that his business acumen was just what the country needed to “drain the swamp” and reverse decades of poor negotiations with nefarious adversaries, both foreign and domestic.

With less than a month to go in his presidency, Trump put a significant ding in whatever exists of that portion of his legacy.

Trump decided over the Christmas holiday to threaten not to sign a combination coronavirus relief package and spending bill. Trump’s chief complaints: The deal delivered only $600 payments to the American people, rather than his desired $2,000, and he didn’t like the so-called pork — and especially foreign funding — in the legislation.

The exercise was bizarre from the jump for a number of reasons. First was that this was a deal forged by his own administration, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin serving as lead negotiator and hailing it shortly before Trump decided to call it “a disgrace.” Second was that Trump raised virtually none of these concerns before the bill’s passage, instead waiting until after the hard work had (apparently) been done to hijack the process. And third was that the pork that Trump and his media allies criticized not only wasn’t in the coronavirus relief bill but was rather in an accompanying omnibus spending bill — actually by and large money that Trump himself had requested in his own proposed budget.

GOP Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio) summed it up best last week:

The whole gambit has now fallen apart in a spectacular but utterly predictable way, with Trump relenting and signing the bill Sunday night. Trump dubiously claimed nonspecific concessions from Congress in voter fraud. He also said he will send lawmakers a “redlined” version of the bill “insisting that those funds be removed” from it. But Trump can insist all he wants; Congress has no duty to actually follow through on his demand to that.

In other words: Trump got nothing. The whole thing was a waste. It appears to have been some combination of a fit of pique, posturing for his post-presidency political efforts, and an effort to leverage Republicans into supporting his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results.

But while it was all utterly pointless, that doesn’t mean it won’t have repercussions. Indeed, if anything, this was a crystallizing moment for our new political reality — but not a terribly helpful one for the GOP.

The biggest takeaway here is that Trump effectively cast a spotlight on Republicans’ refusal to provide more direct coronavirus aid. When Trump decided to go down this road, Democrats were only so happy to play along for their own political ends, because it was Republicans who opposed the bigger checks. You’re right that $600 isn’t good enough, Mr. President, so let’s vote on $2,000! Trump may see some benefit for himself in having insisted on more aid, but now Democrats can even more conclusively point out that it was Republicans who explicitly and repeatedly rejected that. That wouldn’t seem to be a terribly helpful exercise on the eve of two crucial Senate runoffs in Georgia.

The second upshot of all this is what it says about the future of the Republican Party. Starting in a few weeks, it will again be the opposition party in Washington. The last time that happened, it quickly gave rise to the tea party movement. Republicans suddenly got religion on fiscal conservatism during Barack Obama’s presidency before lapsing into a life of sin and exploding spending under Trump.

Every time Trump does something like this, he forces Republicans and his media allies to reconcile their positions with his. In this case, that was easier to do with the alleged pork than the coronavirus checks, so the GOP focused on the former. While pretending that the foreign funding was in the coronavirus relief package and ignoring that Trump had requested it, they echoed him in crying foul.

The question now is whether that was a strategy of necessity momentarily foisted upon them by Trump, or if they’re all going to take that ball and run with it. Even before Trump made his threats, stories about the alleged pork permeated much of conservative media. In some ways, Trump seemed to be reacting to that coverage as much as leading the backlash himself. The stage is increasingly set for the GOP’s convenient return to deficit hawkery, and lawmakers like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appear anxious to recommit themselves.

The dynamics of the whole thing were familiar. It wasn’t the first time Trump has hijacked a deal after it was already agreed to by his own administration. Nor was it the first time he made rather curious use of supposed leverage that didn’t actually provide much leverage. (Trump even said in March 2018 that he wouldn’t sign such omnibus spending bills again, but he just did.) It was Trump suddenly engaging on something when he decided it interested him, but also when the moment was already lost.

And the thing is, the outcome might indeed have been different if he had decided to insist on these things when they were actually being negotiated. Trump’s obstinance has occasionally served him in such negotiations. But the dealmaker in chief decided to deploy that obstinance in a completely nonsensical way at a completely nonsensical time, and his incoherent strategy now leaves his party to pick up the pieces.