Miscalculating His Own Power, Trump is Running Out of Meaningful Allies

Stephen Crowley / The New York Times

If one were to make a list of the mistakes a new president is most likely to make, number one on the list is going to be thinking he’s president. By that I mean: the kind of president they show on TV and in the movies, with the exception of maybe The West Wing.

I don’t blame them for thinking this. As we’ve talked about before, we in the media bear some of the blame for this. It’s just easier to concentrate on one person than 535 members of Congress, not to mention nine members of the Supreme Court. We get lots of movies about presidents, but very few about Congress with exceptions like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, which wasn’t meant to explain how Congress works, but how it doesn’t.

There’s nothing new about that. Back in the early part of the previous century Will Rogers always got a laugh with the line, “every time Congress makes a law, it’s a joke and every time they make a joke, it’s a law.” Funny then. Funny now.

But if a president comes in and really thinks that what they say goes, they are often in for a major league butt whuppin’. Since most of the people we elect are governors and — though not so recently — generals, this was to be expected. They were going to come from Plains, Georgia or Dallas, Texas, or Little Rock, Arkansas and show these here Washington folk, how it’s done, only to be quickly done in.

If you want a lesson in how things actually get done, go back and get a hold of Michael Beschloss’ books on LBJ, Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory. They are based on the tapes LBJ made from his first day in office, and as you hear him wheel and deal successfully for Medicare and the Civil Rights Act and even fail at guiding the Vietnam War, you get a first-hand listen at how the presidency is done. In this case, you had a longtime Senate majority leader who understood which arms needed to be twisted and which egos needed to be stroked. Johnson also understood that without being able to work with and work over Congress, a president’s power is quite small.

The problem governors coming into the job have is they have no experience and often only really know the members of Congress from their own state. The problem a total non-politician has is he knows no one, has no idea how anything works, and has a ton of studying to do not to look and act the fool.

Barack Obama did have some experience in the Senate, but not enough to really understand it, and the high-minded Obama could never quite get down and dirty like an LBJ, who could take down and dirty all the way. He even got J. Edgar Hoover nervous and no other president did that. Ever.

One of the ironies of the Trump administration is that it’s only true success other than getting a Supreme Court justice it likes — a slam dunk with a GOP Congress — has been at the very thing Trump so harshly criticized Barack Obama for, which is executive orders.

Next month with Congress back, Trump has to make another try at a health care bill, tax reform, the debt ceiling, the budget and infrastructure.

He will fail at all or most of those. On the health bill, he attacked John McCain to the point that there’s no reason for McCain to work with him. With a fellow Republican, Senator Ron Johnson, saying McCain’s votes against the health care bills were a result of a brain addled by cancer, there’s really no reason to believe McCain will play along on most of these bills, or give in to any pressure from the White House.

Then there are the unbelievable attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who Trump has told to resign. The only reason for McConnell to seem to be helping Trump at this point is to make the party look like it can actually govern, but when you have a president who doesn’t even read the bills, or lead on the bills, and seems willing to sign anything he can even vaguely call a win, there is no need for McConnell to pay any attention whatsoever to Trump. Basically Trump just reacts to Congress. That and his low approval ratings have turned what seemed to be a force of nature into something more like the call of nature.

Really, Trump at this point has less clout with Congress than the Club For Growth, which is threatening to refuse to support Republicans who do not vote for a full repeal of Obamacare, but though that may deprive some members of Congress of some campaign funds. Among voters, the Club For Growth has less influence than the Hair Club For Men, and the number of even Republican voters who want a full repeal of Obamacare is receding faster than a potential Hair Club For Men customer.

Trump builds bridges to Congress like Lt. Colonel Nicholson builds bridges at the end of The Bridge On The River Kwai as he falls dying on the detonator that destroys the very bridge he built. Trump has made clear he’s not going to take the fall for any piece of legislation that fails to pass, while willing to take the credit for anything that does, but that’s not how the White House works.

Trump is like the person who knocks over a precious Ming vase at the museum and when it goes crashing in a million tiny shards to the floor cries out, “I’m all right.” Unwilling to take the hit, he can’t claim the credit and he has really no say in any of it at all. Telling Congress as he did on health care, just pass something, leaves you out of the game from the get go as many Republicans just wait for Trump to get gone.

In a startling interview with Susan Glasser of Politico, Trump confidante Roger Stone says Trump should deepen his war with McConnell saying “I’d throw Mitch McConnell and the boys over the sides so fast your head would spin,” but Trump has no power to do that. Other Trump allies told Glasser the Republican Party hasn’t gotten it through their heads that Trump won, but these neophytes haven’t gotten it through their heads that all those Republican members of Congress won as well, and everyone in the House, and many in the Senate face re-election sooner than Trump does.

The argument that they haven’t gotten through their heads that Trump won is a massively stupid one for Republicans anyhow, as they did everything to block both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who not only won, but won twice! The modern GOP was built on not caring that the president won. They really haven’t cared since Reagan, who was massively popular in a way both Bushes and Trump never were.

People around Trump keep waiting for members of Congress to get it. That Trump is the one they have to listen to, but many seats in Congress are so safe for incumbents that many of them figure they can just wait him out, and they do not at all like a guy who said “I alone can fix it,” yelling at Congress to “fix it!” without making any substantial suggestions at all as to how that can be done. Trump has gone from reformer and swamp drainer to one of those consultants you hire whose idea of changing the workplace is just going around the floor and yelling at everyone to work harder, while he takes the money for the job he’s not really doing.

Though Trump’s numbers are falling, he’s still popular with GOP voters, but it’s getting harder and harder to find his core constituency. Old line conservative Republicans can’t make heads or tails of where he is on any issue. He had the alt-right in the palm of his hand until he tried to keep moderates and conservatives in line by finally — if all too late to be meaningful — condemning white supremacists.

That led David Duke — who said he was just trying to make good on Trump’s promises with that disaster in Charlottesville — to have a baby, an interesting image considering the alt-right’s feeling on transgender people. Duke tweeted that Trump had been manipulated by the media with their fake news. I have no idea what fake news he’s talking about unless there really wasn’t a woman named Heather Heyer who really wasn’t murdered by a real Nazi. Duke even defended the man who drove that car into a crowd that included Heyer claiming that James Alex Fields panicked because he was under attack.

Of course, there’s no evidence that Fields, safely in his car, was under attack or that he panicked or that he did anything other than what Nazis do to people who aren’t Nazis which is to murder them. Can we imagine David Duke saying that any of the Islamic terrorists who have driven into crowds of people just panicked? No. It’s hard for Duke to really see what’s going on, looking through the eyeholes of a pillowcase, but I think those of less blinded than this hood is by a hood have a pretty good idea of what happened here.

So now, even that crowd may feel that Trump, though closer to what they want than Lisa Murkowski, is not always in their corner.

Which leaves him with what? A daughter who seems to sit in on all the meetings but loses all the arguments. Two grown sons whose business dealings are under a microscope. A national security chief hated by Trump’s most ardent supporters for either being too close to Israel or not close enough. A vice president who stands by like he’s waiting for someone behind a White House counter to call his number, and a chief of staff who is trying to control access to Trump within the White House, just seems to have gotten more disgruntled members of the administration speaking out loud hoping to be quoted on Fox and Friends so Trump still heads them. It’s hard to tell whether access to the president is now controlled more by General Kelly or Steve Doucy.

And with all these bills I spoke of at the beginning coming hard upon this White House in just a few weeks, it’s hard to figure out how someone ducking responsibility for any plans and raining friendly fire down upon his own troops, can get the kind of even symbolic win scored this week by someone who knows how to keep the fans she’s gathered: Taylor Swift.

Of course, we know which literal end the President would have been on in that suit as well.

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