Opinion

Trump has learned nothing

After four years in the White House, the president still doesn't know a thing about governing

Even when Donald Trump does the right thing, he does it in the worst way possible.

So it goes with COVID-19 economic relief. Trump on Sunday night signed a $900 billion law that will extend unemployment benefits, help struggling small businesses, and send $600 checks to most Americans to help them get through the hard fiscal times brought on by the pandemic. That's the good news.

But the signing came only after a long holiday weekend in which Trump let COVID-era unemployment benefits expire and pushed the government to the edge of a shutdown at midnight tonight — ostensibly because he believed Americans should get even bigger checks from the government.

"I simply want to get our great people $2,000," Trump tweeted on Saturday, "rather than the measly $600 that is now in the bill."

He didn't end up getting the $2,000. But he did spend several days holding millions of Americans hostage to anxiety about their ability to pay rent and keep food on the table in the coming weeks and months. The "will-he-or-won't-he" dance with the relief bill was unnecessary, cruel, and all too Trumpian.

What's more, the near-disaster means Trump is ending his Oval Office tenure much like he began it — able to hold us in thrall to his provocations and inflicting terrible damage to both truth and democracy itself, but mostly unable to master the nuts and bolts of governing. It is remarkable that he spent four years in the White House without showing any real growth in his ability to get stuff done.

Congress spent months gridlocked and haggling over the bill, for example, time when the president could have made his demands clear but didn't. Indeed, The Washington Post reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly pressed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in mid-December to state Trump's position on the direct payments. It was an opportunity for the White House to bid for $2,000 checks, but Mnuchin ducked the question. If Trump truly wanted Americans to get that money, he could have and should have said so much earlier in the process.

Instead, he waited for the work to be done — and then threatened to blow it all up.

Of course, Trump has always been impatient with process, eager to rule by edict. Slowing down a little bit might have made him more effective. He began his term, after all, with a travel ban for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries. Aside from being morally objectionable in its own right, the hasty rollout of the policy was a logistical disaster: Immigration officials were confused about who was and wasn't allowed into the country and travelers found themselves suddenly detained at America's international airports. Judges had to order temporary halts to the ban in order to sort out the chaos. Very often — on issues involving the Census, DACA, environmental regulation, and more — Trump found his policies stymied thanks to his administration's tendency to treat the details of policymaking as irrelevant.

When he wasn't trying to take shortcuts, Trump sometimes engaged in what might be called whim-driven brinkmanship. He shut down the government in early 2019 after backing down from a promise to sign a short-term funding bill — all because conservative commentators like Ann Coulter criticized him for not getting money from Congress to fund his border wall with Mexico. After 35 days, the second-longest shutdown in U.S. government history, Trump caved anyway. (He later used an emergency declaration to reappropriate defense funding, which may have been more effective, but was also a form of constitutional cheating.)

Trump spent his term talking big, routinely underdelivering, and proclaiming victory anyway. He often worked to be seen doing something that looks like leading the country, but never quite got around to doing the grunt work that even presidential leadership requires. The result has been a string of failures.

The bright side is we only have to endure the roller coaster ride of this presidency for a few weeks more. President-elect Joe Biden comes to office with his own set of flaws, but he will never threaten to veto legislation that his administration helped pass. Mere competence may seem insufficient in a country with big problems and ample resources, but it will be a vast improvement on the last four years.

Trump, meanwhile, has nearly completed his legacy as a president with terrible ideas who was even worse at making many of those ideas reality. Imagine how awful he could've been if he actually had learned how to do his job.

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