Presidents have been squabbling with Congress for as long as we have had presidents and Congress. But Donald Trump, smasher of convention, may be giving us something we haven't seen in our lifetimes: a president in all-out war against a Congress his own party controls.
Why is he doing it? He still doesn't seem to have managed to wrap his head around the idea that Congress is a collection of 535 egos, fears, and agendas, ones that may or may not line up perfectly with his own at any given moment. Tensions between President Trump and Congress have been rising, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Trump blames for not passing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Their relationship "has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks," The New York Times reported, "and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises." Even after McConnell put out a statement insisting that they're working well together, Trump still took to Twitter to berate the majority leader, producing encouraging headlines like "Trump-McConnell feud simmers as GOP watches in horror."
Meanwhile, Trump still likes to portray himself as a disruptive force taking on the establishment — except the establishment is his own party. At his rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, he told the crowd, "If we have to close down our government, we're building that wall!" This extraordinary threat to shut down the government comes because Congress hasn't yet approved the money to build a wall on the southern border (hey, wasn't Mexico supposed to pay for it?), and if a budget bill isn't passed by the end of September, the government will shut down.
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But the fact is that this just isn't a believable threat. To understand why, let's play it out. The House and Senate both pass a budget bill that doesn't include funding for a border wall. If the bill isn't signed by the president, the government will shut down. Trump then vetoes this bill because it doesn't fund the wall, causing national parks, government services, and offices all over the country to cease operation.
If that happened it would be an absolute political disaster for the Republican Party, one they can't blame on Democrats. The news media would be filled with stories about the impact of the shutdown and the Republican infighting that produced it. It would significantly increase the chances of a Democratic wave election in 2018. Do you think the people around Trump are going to let him veto that bill?
This is one more manifestation of the fact that for Trump, the presidency is all about him. Perhaps we should have expected as much, given the fact that he had few commitments to the Republican Party or conservatism as an ideology, and the fact that he's a narcissist of epic proportions.
But he's also someone who has little understanding of how politics works, particularly when it comes to the relationship between the president and Congress. He seems to think they're there to serve him, and when they don't, he gets impossibly frustrated. He's been yelling at senators for allowing the Russia investigation to continue, in the apparent belief that their highest priority should be to protect him. He's been promoting primary challenges to Republicans who displease him.
Smart presidents don't try to bully and insult members of Congress, they do the opposite. They massage them and court them and make them feel important. They invite them to the White House so the members can go back to their constituents and say, "As I told the president just the other day..." They bank good will they can draw on later. And they understand that they need to do all that even more when their popularity declines and members might see advantage in creating distance between themselves and the White House.
So instead of addressing the problem of legislative inaction in a way that would work to the advantage of himself and his party — trying harder to understand what members of Congress want and need, and then working with them to achieve their legislative goals — he's setting himself against his party and ratcheting up tensions. The resulting confrontations are likely to end badly, making both him and the GOP Congress look bad and increasing the chances of a wave election for Democrats in 2018 that could enable them to take back the House. The more Trump fights with members of Congress from his own party, the less enthusiastic his base voters will be about turning out to support those members in 2018. And there's no more disastrous outcome for the Trump presidency than a house of Congress in Democratic hands — giving them the ability to kill any and all legislation the administration wants, not to mention subpoena power.
But he can't help himself. President Trump thrives on conflict and takes everything personally, so if the Republican Congress doesn't give him what he wants the first time around, he'll strike out at them. And they'll both wind up paying the price.
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