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Palace whispers in the court of King Donald

Posted by hkarner - 14. Mai 2017

Date: 13-05-2017
Source: The Economist: Lexington

Senators are beginning to despair

IT IS too soon to know whether Donald Trump’s sudden, regal dismissal of the FBI director—“Off with his head!”—will trigger a constitutional crisis. Much depends on who is appointed to succeed James Comey, and on the fate of FBI probes into Russian meddling in the election of 2016.

It is not too soon to make a more general observation. Less than four months into the reign of King Donald, his impetuous ways are making it more likely that his presidency will be a failure, with few large achievements to its name. That is not journalistic snark but a statement of fact, based on warnings from prominent Republicans and Democrats, notably in the Senate.
The 100 members of the Senate have a touchy relationship with every president. They are grandees, with a keen sense of superiority over the toiling hacks who serve in the House of Representatives and the here-today-gone-tomorrow political appointees who run the executive branch. Senators are treated as princes when they travel overseas, briefed by grizzled American generals and treated to tea by local potentates. In their dreams, election campaigns might still involve addressing crowds from the flag-draped caboose of a private train. Small wonder, then, that senators often resent the still-grander life of a president. Yet their dismay over Mr Trump sounds different.

As the Trump era began, Democratic senators recalled how this populist president had scorned both parties on the campaign trail, and wondered whether he might seek new, bipartisan coalitions to help hard-pressed working Americans. Democrats would muse, off the record, about the terms they would demand for supporting policies like a vast infrastructure programme. Perhaps, for example, they might seek union wage rates for workers building Mr Trump’s new airports and bridges. Republican senators worried, privately, about the same thing from the other side. They fretted that their new president would strike bargains with the new Democratic leader in the Senate, the canny, deal-cutting Charles Schumer of New York. To comfort themselves, Republicans imagined Mr Trump as a sort of salesman-CEO, selling comprehensive tax reform and deregulation to the masses while delegating day-to-day government to conventional conservatives such as his vice-president, Mike Pence.

Not any more. Increasingly the mood among Senate Republicans is a mixture of incredulity and gloom, as each political success (the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice, deftly handled cruise-missile strikes on Syria) is followed by a momentum-killing outburst from the president.

Some cast Mr Trump’s woes as a crisis of messaging and of White House staff discipline. At a recent lunch for Senate Republicans , Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the owl-like majority leader, scolded Mr Pence over a Trump tweet that suggested a government shutdown might be a nifty idea. You don’t believe that, we don’t believe that, and that sort of tweet only makes our lives harder, Mr McConnell reportedly told the vice-president. Prominent Republicans and Democrats have offered Mr Trump the same advice: find a chief of staff in the ferocious mould of James Baker, chief enforcer in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Some senators have still more specific counsel to offer. They urge Mr Trump to create a domestic policy team that apes the professionalism of his national security team. They praise his second national security adviser, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, for turning around a group left in chaos by his ill-starred predecessor, Mike Flynn, and hail the way that his defence secretary, James Mattis, works with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Not only do the chieftains of the Pentagon and State Department meet on their own at least once a week for breakfast to share their thinking, when recommending policies they try to present the president with a single option.

In their darker moments, though, some grandees on Capitol Hill wonder if what ails this presidency goes beyond unwise tweeting or the lack of a gatekeeper who can shield Mr Trump from what one Republican describes as “people filling his head with stupid”. It has become a commonplace, especially on the right, to accuse the press of exaggerating palace intrigues in Trump World. If only that were true. In fact, powerful folk in Washington routinely describe Mr Trump in shockingly dismissive terms. He is compared to an easily distracted child who must be kept “on task”. Foreign allies talk of a president on a learning curve. Senior Republicans call him out of his depth. Bigwigs call the president a surprisingly good listener. But they also call him easily flattered. They think him capable of doing “cheap deals” with such powers as China, after a summit at which President Xi Jinping dazzled Mr Trump with talk of how, to an ancient power like his, 1776 feels like yesterday.

The royal touch
Official Washington is realising that the real problem is not that Mr Trump hears competing advice from warring White House factions—a fierily nationalist camp led by his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and a pragmatic group led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Those factions persist because they each represent an authentic part of Mr Trump’s worldview. He is by deep conviction a nationalist with a grievance, convinced that America has let others take advantage for too long. If he is sometimes more or less confrontational, it is a matter of tactics, not belief.

At the root of each fresh crisis lies Mr Trump’s character. If he were a king in velvet and ermine that would matter less. But he is an American president. To get his appointees confirmed, budgets passed, and reforms agreed, Mr Trump needs Congress, and notably a Senate in which his party enjoys the slimmest of majorities, and he has ever-fewer admirers. Party loyalty may save him from a revolution. But, startlingly early on, his own colleagues are starting to wonder what King Donald is for.

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