Is President Donald Trump dangerously expanding the imperial presidency through his instinct for authoritarianism and destructive disregard for our political system? Or is he endlessly diminishing it through his juvenile behavior and comically bad political instincts? The answer is yes, to both questions.
Almost exactly halfway through his term, Trump has proven to be a mystifying, mesmerizing combination of competing instincts: An admixture of “I alone can fix it” strongman posturing and “the buck stops with everybody” haplessness, punctuated by moments of brazen, self-destructive stupidity. Last week he toyed with precipitating a political crisis by abusing the National Emergencies Act; this week he looked pathetically overmatched against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and that’s even before a report that he had directed his former lawyer to lie to Congress brought his presidency to a fresh moment of existential crisis.
The latest cycle of diminution started when Pelosi sent Trump a letter pointedly suggesting that he postpone his State of the Union address given that the federal government remains shut down at his insistence. Trump aides had reportedly been hoping that the president could use the big speech to swing public opinion in the shutdown and wall fights, which he’s losing; his speech last week was supposed to do just that, and failed utterly.
After 24 hours of surprising quiescence, Trump fired back by canceling the military flight Pelosi and other members of Congress were going to use for a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. “We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the shutdown is over,” Trump wrote snarkily in a letter of his own to Pelosi, dismissing the trip as a “public relations event.”
Trump has long defined himself as a counter-puncher: When he’s hit, he feels the need to respond in kind, out of a fear that failing to do so will be a sign of weakness. But in this case his return volley underscored his own impotence. Knowing exactly how to hit him where it hurts, Pelosi has threatened to deprive him of his biggest audience of the year if he persists with his shutdown; in terms of optics and political capital, canceling a Congressional delegation (referred to in official Washington as a CODEL) is small potatoes, and the fact that the legislators were going to see American troops in a war zone that he has not yet bestirred himself to visit only makes him look more petulant.
Administration officials “sought to put her in her place after she had emphasized that she represented a coequal branch in government,” The New York Times reported. Well played: She asserted, correctly, her chamber’s constitutional status and he somehow responded like a particularly vicious travel agent.
This isn’t tit for tat, it’s nit for tat — and he’s picking a fight against someone who exerts, by virtue of the constitution, a great deal of control over the governmental purse strings.
Not that the problems stopped at the optics: The letter was also a breach of long-standing security practices of keeping plans for senior officials traveling to war zones. That’s why, for example, Trump’s travel to Iraq at Christmas was a surprise — a trip which also took place during the shutdown, undercutting his claims both that official foreign travel should be impermissible and that they are little more than photo ops.
Trump’s letter had a further domino effect. Shortly after its release, the administration announced that all CODELs would be grounded during the shutdown and administration officials who had planned to attend the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos would have to skip it. (You’re welcome, rest of the world.) But of course none of this prevented Melania Trump from jetting down to Mar-a-Lago on a military plane; a nation has to have its priorities after all.
As an exercise in chest-beating, Trump’s letter was a flop, even if it elicited coos of pleasure from his political base. Plus, it underscores that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is simply propping up the foundering Trump: The House-passed bill to reopen the government, which the Senate unanimously supported last month, would undoubtedly pass the chamber now, too, except McConnell won’t allow a vote on it.
And yet, as comically inept as Trump frequently is, and as much as he diminishes his office with every tweet and every self-pitying complaint about Democrats’ refusal to accede to his demands and every ill-considered counter-punch, he still holds the most powerful office in the land.
That makes him as dangerous in reality as he is powerful on paper. He damages our system and our standing in the world with his attacks on the free press and the independent judiciary, his alleged attempts to — variably — suborn or obstruct the justice system (on which BuzzFeed reported less than 24 hours after his negotiating gambit), his propensity to antagonize our allies while sucking up to our adversaries, his capitalizing on his office for profit and more.
The shutdown — ill-considered and spurred by the right-wing commentariat as it was — exemplifies Trump’s combination of fecklessness and dangerousness. He is deliberately harming the country and demanding a concession from Democrats that he couldn’t achieve through the normal political process before he’ll stop. But allowing the government to function is not, and should not, be a concession... which is why Democrats are correct not to negotiate.
Meanwhile, the author of “The Art of the Deal” seems completely unable to understand the basics of one of the most important negotiations of his life.