The Jekyll And Hyde Administration
The Trump administration seems to be two distinct administrations in one. And they each have two different titular heads. There is the one headed by Mike Pence that is a traditional, though extreme, mainstream conservative administration. It talks about empowering Americans by rolling back regulations, providing tax cuts for the wealthy, and getting our fiscal house in order by cutting entitlements. And then there is the one headed by Trump and Bannon that probably agrees with Pence on those issues but is more interested on cracking down on immigrants and Muslims, ripping up our trade deals, backing out of our alliances, and rebuilding a new world order. It is truly schizophrenic, a Jekyll and Hyde administration, with Jekyll just slightly less evil than Hyde.
This being politics, logical consistency is not necessary and often difficult to find, but most politicians at least try to keep up the pretense of having it. And when you have two different administrations, the logical inconsistencies sometimes become quite stark and stunning. Erik Loomis lays out one brief episode in Sean Spicer’s press conference yesterday. Spicer first commented on the DOJ ruling on transgender public school students being blocked from using facilities that match their gender identity. (The GOP obsession with bathrooms is really quite striking.) Spicer described the decision saying, “It’s a states’ right issue. And that’s entirely what he [Trump] believes, that if a state wants to pass a law or rule or an organization wants to do something in compliance with the state law, that’s their right, but it shouldn’t be the federal government getting in the way of this.” It’s interesting to note the focus on the state law, of course, because the state law in North Carolina that triggered this whole issue was to override an ordinance in the city of Charlotte that let transgender students use the facilities of their gender identity. Just minutes later, in a remarkable about face, Spicer then laid out the prospect of tighter enforcement of federal marijuana laws. Said Spicer, “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement”, but the policy would be “a question for the Department of Justice.” In other words, the rights of states like Colorado and Washington that have legalized marijuana don’t matter, federal law prevails. It is rare that you see such stark situational ethics, even in politics.
Steve Mnuchin used a similar tactic in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. As Kevin Drum points out, he managed to blame Obama for a slow growth economy while at the same time saying the US economy was outperforming the rest of the world. It was a pretty neat trick. According to the Journal, “Mnuchin said slower economic growth since the financial crisis had primarily been an anomaly and a result of Obama administration policies that can be reversed”, and then quoted Mnuchin directly, “We think it’s critical that we get back to more normalized economic growth. More normalized economic growth is 3% or higher.” Later in the interview, Mnuchin was asked about the strength of the US dollar. His reply, “I think the strength of the dollar has a lot to do with kind of where our economy is relative to the rest of the world, and that the dollar continues to be the leading currency in the world, the leading reserve currency and a reflection of the confidence that people have in the U.S. economy.” So which one is it, Steve — a slow economy due to Obama or the strength of our economy compared to the rest of the world and one that people have confidence in, again due to Obama? I’m sure he would sit there with a straight face and say both are true at the same time.
But it is not just individual Trump advisers who end up have to contradict themselves within a few sentences. Most of the time, those advisers are sent out to “interpret” what exactly the White House is saying, kind of like sweeping up after the circus parade. Most of the time this involves sending out the Pence administration to calm nerves about what the Trump administration has done. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, had to perform that job today. Cohn is a member of the Pence administration who has somehow managed to catch the President’s ear and is now tasked with leading Trump by the nose into the Pence camp. Today, he had to go reassure business leaders that the border adjustment tax floated by the brilliant mind of Paul Ryan and House Republicans was not supported by the White House. This tax has the potential to devastate companies that rely on imports and yesterday Trump had indicated some support for the idea. Cohn performed another part of his job a few weeks ago when he managed to convince Trump that his “huge” infrastructure plan would not work because it would either have to rely on private partners or would explode the deficit. That was all apparently news to the oblivious Trump and now the infrastructure plan has been put off until 2018 when the GOP hopes it can be used as a political weapon. Of course, the Pence administration has no interest in an infrastructure plan because that would mean spending money.
Where the dichotomy in administrations really becomes dangerous is in the arena of foreign policy. And here the messages of the two administrations are in direct conflict. That certainly does not inspire confidence among our allies. Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson, essentially the foreign policy team of the Pence administration, were in Europe last week, trying to calm our allies down about Trump/Bannon’s threat to substantially weaken NATO and the European Union. But, just days before Pence and company left for Europe, Bannon again reiterated his desire to see the EU break apart while speaking to the German Ambassador. According to CNN, “Bannon told Peter Witting, the German ambassador to the US, that the Trump administration wants to strengthen bilateral ties with individual European countries rather than deal with the entire bloc, the sources said. In what was described as a ‘combative’ conversation, the sources said Bannon spelled out a nationalist world view and cited a wave of anti-EU populism as evidence of the bloc’s flaws.” The NY Times today has an article describing the similar problem that Mexico is having trying to determine what exactly is the policy of the US. The headline alone tells the story, “As Kelly and Tillerson Visit Mexico, Their Reassurances Differ From Trump’s Stance”.
When push comes to shove, these foreign governments are more likely to believe the words of the Trump/Bannon administration rather than the Pence administration, because, after all, that is where the power really lies. And the potential blowback for the US could be powerful. If the US does abandon NATO, it would probably pull the remaining Western Alliance nations even closer together as they fear Putin and Russia trying to extend their influence back into Europe. The US would lose important allies in the whatever military adventures Trump/Bannon would want to engage in. It would extend the influence of China as the EU would look to that country as an important trading partner in order to “replace” the US, whom the EU could no longer trust.
Mexico actually presents even more challenges. We need their cooperation on immigration and the drug trade and the country is a critical component in the supply chains of many US companies. As the Times article points out, Mexico is an enormous purchaser of US agricultural products. The country is “the №1 purchaser of American corn, dairy, pork and rice. Mexico purchased nearly $2 billion of corn in 2016 and also bought large amounts of soybeans, wheat, cotton and beef. A Mexican lawmaker recently proposed a bill to redirect purchases of corn away from the United States, a tactic that could devastate American corn farmers in the heartland of Mr. Trump’s base. Both Brazil and Argentina offer alternatives to the American Corn Belt, experts and officials say.” If Mexico decides that the US relationship is that unstable and unfriendly, they are in a position to devastate the agriculture industry in the US. As the Mexican lawmaker’s bill indicates, the Mexican public is already pressuring the Mexican government to take a stronger stand against the Trump/Bannon’s economic nationalism. The Pence administration, on the other hand, has no interest in pursuing these battles.
There is a reason that Lawrence O’Donnell calls Pence the greatest threat to Donald Trump. Pence is the guy that the GOP Congress would find far easier to work with than Trump. Pence is the guy whose interests align almost seamlessly with the Republicans in Congress. Pence will not create these needless missteps and distractions that only end up delaying the GOP Congress from the tax cuts and regulation rollbacks it is really interested in. But Trump still holds enough power over the rank and file Republican voters and that is what keeps the Trump/Bannon administration in place. The GOP Congress is not yet ready to confront Trump. The Pence administration will, of course, do its best to convert Trump over to its views and they may very well succeed. But if they can’t, it won’t be long before Republicans in Congress decide to get rid of Mr. Hyde and give all the power to Dr. Jekyll.
[I’ve also written about this and other issues on my personal blog at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com]