The New York Times reported an extraordinary showdown in the Oval Office last week. Defying objections from the vice president, attorney general, secretary of health and human services, and White House counsel, President Trump decided to ask the courts to invalidate Obamacare entirely.
Republican congressional leaders, still smarting from their failure to replace the health care law despite majorities in both chambers, were aghast. According to the Times, the decision could endanger the confirmation of a key deputy to Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget.
This is hardly the first time Trump shocked his own party with a risky policy detour. Last December, the president announced on Twitter that the U.S. would withdraw completely from Syria, going against advice from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned the next day. When the policy was reversed several weeks later, the country was left to wonder at the point of it all.
And on Saturday, the president cut off foreign assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, accusing them of “set[ting] up these caravans” — just two days after Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen visited the region and congratulated the three countries on their “commitment to more orderly migration flows.”
But, the failure of Trump’s closest aides to moderate the president’s more radical impulses is a new development. Here’s a sampling of the president’s bad ideas that have been blocked over the last two years: a U.S. withdrawal from NATO, removing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, ending the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller (on multiple occasions), printing money to lower the national debt, and fulfilling a campaign promise to stop all Muslims entering the country. Those are just some of the ones we know about.
Before the 2018 midterm shellacking, an anonymous senior Trump official declared him or herself “part of the resistance inside the Trump administration,” citing “unsung heroes in and around the White House [who] have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.”
If such a “resistance” ever existed, it’s in shambles. And the president’s sense of liberation following the conclusion of the Mueller investigation will probably only encourage his capricious instincts. We should ask ourselves: if this is how he behaves now, how might he govern in a second term when he is no longer constrained by electoral politics? What leverage will Republicans have against a billionaire president who no longer needs them?
Congressional Republicans, except for the Steve King and Louie Gohmert fringe, never cared much about a border wall. Former Speaker Paul Ryan might have been too complacent about Trump’s takeover of the party, but he stayed focused on the agenda items his conference cared about: enacting tax cuts (successfully) and repealing Obamacare (at least they tried).
After the midterms, the dynamic changed considerably. Bowing to criticism from Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, Trump rejected a GOP negotiated budget package and launched a pointless (but record-breaking!) government shutdown in hopes of funding his wall.
Exasperated Republicans cracked, with six GOP senators defecting to vote for a Democratic bill to reopen the government. The president then created even more rifts within his own party by declaring a national emergency to get his wall funded.
“Be careful, a Democratic president might use this precedent to call a national emergency on climate change or gun control,” conservatives warned. Fair enough. But what is equally if not more worrying is what Trump himself could do if he wins.
Close the southern border? Sic regulators on political comedians? Open a federal investigation into social media companies for “shadow banning” conservatives? Pull broadcast licenses from troublesome media outlets? Purge “deep state” bureaucrats for having the temerity to investigate the president, his family or businesses? Order the Justice Department to investigate Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? Politicize the Federal Reserve’s interest rate decisions?
We’ve been spared some of that litany by God’s grace and a few White House aides with the prudence to defy or ignore the president’s more reckless dictates. But that raises the question: who will staff a Trump-led executive branch in years seven and eight?
A typical administration starts with an A-team: former governors and senators, presidential campaign runners-up, trusted Washington hands, business leaders, and so on. Supporting the A-team is a group of capable deputies, a B-team that is groomed for leadership and gradually replaces the principals.
With a few notable exceptions, the Trump administration started with a C-team (most of the A- or B-team declined to take high-level jobs or were disqualified for insufficient pro-Trump zeal), and it’s quickly burning through the D-team. A staffer who might have been a confidential assistant to a deputy assistant secretary in a Jeb Bush administration could be elevated to an office in the West Wing with mess privileges under Trump. Do we trust that person to keep the president from going off the rails?
During a 2011 visit to Islamabad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton memorably lectured the Pakistani government about the danger of harboring extremists.
You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors. You know, eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.
The wisdom of that aphorism became clear to Republicans in the 2016 campaign, as the loudmouth reality TV star best known for attacking Barack Obama turned against conservative favorites like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (all the while riling up the base by reading “The Snake” at rallies, nominally as an anti-immigration parable).
But once Trump won, all seemed to have been forgiven, or at least conveniently and tactically forgotten. “He’s picking Federalist Society-approved judges.” “Jim Mattis is keeping the international system together.” “Gary Cohn is preventing a trade war.” “Don McGahn is protecting the Justice Department from purges.”
With the exception of judges, how is that working out? And who’s to say Trump will keep appointing justices like Neil Gorsuch or Brett Kavanaugh if he begins to see their decisions as disloyal? Who knows what conservatism even looks like at the end of a second Trump term?
Trump’s election in 2016 might go down in history as aberrant, a brief but dramatic instance of media-fueled national madness. The populist fever might break as it has so many times before.
Or we might re-elect him. And a second term would only ratify his proto-authoritarian kulturkampf as the future of conservatism, marking our movement for generations. Is this a debate worth having? I think so. We knew damn well he was a snake before we gave him four more years.