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In the Trump era, there's no 'room where it happens'

Trump’s world view is not to trust anyone and not to be trusted himself. And now we are living in his world.
Image: President Trump visits Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, where he will delivers a speech on the economy and taxes from a manufacturing factory, H and K Equipment Inc.
The Oval Office is no longer a "room where it happens" — not in Trump's Washington.NBC News

News analysis

WASHINGTON — In the musical "Hamilton," the Aaron Burr character stops the show with a jazzy tune about his outsider’s lust for political power. He wants to join the likes of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in "the room where it happens."

Like Burr, Donald Trump is an outsider, and a New Yorker. But in the administration Trump heads and the Washington he inhabits, there is no "room where it happens" — even the one he is in.

"He’s not the convener, not the guy who uses his authority to force others in the room to do the deal," said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a Democrat with decades of experience serving in both chambers.

The shutdown now underway is in good part the result of the now-familiar, long-term disintegration of what used to be called "regular order" in politics, government and media. Lots of current players also share blame, including Democratic leaders, who are insisting on using a simple, stopgap funding bill to protect the "Dreamers" and make fundamental immigration policy.

But in this case — the first in modern times in which a party controlling all the levers of power has presided over a shutdown — the main source of the chaos and dysfunction sits in the Oval Office.

The latest piece of evidence came as the hours ticked away on Friday. Trump invited Sen. Chuck Schumer, fellow New Yorker and ego-driven dealmaker, to the White House for a deal-making, man-to-man private lunch without the senior staff.

There was, both sides later said, some progress.

The Cheeseburger Summit turned out to be a parody of the old days, when presidents and congressional leaders broke bread and made deals. Within hours of the lunch, chief of staff John Kelly, an ally of immigration hardliners, overrode whatever Trump had said.

"It’s very clear that Kelly undid the progress made in the lunch," a top Senate source told me later. In other words, the president and self-declared master dealmaker was not in the room where it happened.

Chaos and paralysis is always a possibility given how Trump came to power, who he is and how he has always has operated in his career.

He never ran as a unifier, and the inaugural address he gave exactly one year ago today was a dark, foreboding (and therefore all but unprecedented) exercise in name calling and division. He was by and for his people, his base, their wants and resentments. That, after all, was how he won the 2016 election.

For the most part, he has pursued that base-only politics in his first year in office. That, in turn, has left him with the lowest job-approval rating of any modern president after one year in office.

But if you play only to your base, you are imprisoned by it. Having relied on anti-immigration sentiment to fuel his rise, he can’t escape it now, and most of his remaining political advisers — including top aides like Kelly, Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller — see their jobs as protecting Trump from whatever instinct he may have to stray.

Trump has always operated on a madman theory of negotiation. He claims that there is deep strategic brilliance in his habit of contradicting himself and backing away from deals he had convinced others (and perhaps himself) that he had made in good faith.

But these methods, proudly detailed in "The Art of the Deal," have led others to question his sanity, and New York bankers and real estate CEOs to shun him like the plague, even as he built tower after tower.

And those methods — assuming there is a method at all — are a disaster in Washington. They rob Trump of whatever moral authority he might otherwise have, and undermine the currency of trust that makes legislative and political deal-making work in the nation’s capital.

Trump’s world view is not to trust anyone and not to be trusted himself.

And now we are living in his world.

Howard Fineman is a contributor to NBC and a news analyst for NBC News/MSNBC.