Trump Built His Own Prison

He’s barely been in office for two months and he’s already cut off every possibility for success.

A lot of people will read the following excerpt and take away from it more confirmation that Donald Trump doesn’t know or care about policy, and that’s a legitimate takeaway. But I think, ultimately, any Republican president would eventually get to the same place with the Freedom Caucus on health care or many other issues, regardless of the underlying merits of what they were discussing. So, I’d like to offer a limited defense of how Trump reacted:

Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off.

“Forget about the little shit,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”

The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little shit” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.

“We’re talking about one-fifth of our economy,” a member told me afterward.

Personally, I think Trump should have taken a different route with them by explaining in no uncertain terms that he didn’t run on creating a health care system anything like what was in the bill, and that he was already going to take a massive amount of heat for dispossessing tens of millions of people of their health care. He should have threatened that if he couldn’t rely on the Freedom Caucus on this most important first test, he’d be forced to cut them out of negotiations on pretty much everything else and go to the Democrats for his votes for infrastructure, trade, and tax reform, which would result in a major defeat for conservative ideology.

If it were me, I would have had a staffer ready to explain just how extreme the change would be, because entering into a governing coalition with the Democrats would force him to curtail his aggressiveness across the board in order to create room for the Democrats to work with him.

But Trump doesn’t have that kind of political imagination. Maybe that’s a fortunate thing, or maybe it’s a shortcoming that is going to bring the country to ruin. It’s hard to separate a president’s failure from the failure of the country, after all.

What’s important, though, is that reality has a way of asserting itself, and if there are limited paths for achieving basic minimal governance, those pathways will become better marked with every week that passes without progress on Trump’s legislative agenda.

On the Breitbart front, it’s getting hard to tell when the organization is acting at Steve Bannon’s instruction and when they are running independently from him, but they’re going very hard against Paul Ryan. Their article looks to me like it contains concocted anonymous quotes. They just read less like how people actually talk and more like how a bad scriptwriter would create dialogue. The intent is clear enough, though, which is to try to foment a coup against the Speaker so that a Freedom Caucus member can take his place.

This is actually an important thing to try to understand because insofar as Trump’s agenda is Bannon’s agenda and Bannon’s agenda is Breitbart’s agenda, the president is going to keep running, over and over, into the problem that he didn’t run as a far right Freedom Caucus ideologue.

To be sure, Trump’s immigration and trade policies align with Breitbart’s vision, as does his foreign policy broadly speaking. But outside of those areas, Trump ran as much more of a supporter of big government. His desire to do big deficit spending, to protect entitlements, to put a trillion dollars into infrastructure, are all going to run afoul of anti-Obama positions that were clearly staked out over the last eight years. These things divide Republicans to a degree that they can’t be done without some Democratic support, and nothing can be done with Democratic support unless Trump’s softens his positions on most of the things that unite the Republicans.

To put it in the simplest of terms, Trump has an agenda that cannot win majority support in Congress, and that means he has to adjust his agenda in fundamental ways.

Based on his personality and character, as well as his accumulated record, he does not seem capable of moving in the Democrats’ direction. Yet, there are no other paths. He just failed at the one gambit he had, which was to create a credible threat that he’d run to the Democrats in order to scare the Freedom Caucus into line.

Of course, so far I’ve been ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the federal and congressional investigations of his campaign’s connections to the Russians. He needs the Republicans to be united enough behind him to create a line of defense that can hold. Having insulted so many key congressional Republicans, and running a foreign policy that is not trusted by the Republican establishment, and having made enemies of the Intelligence Community and the media, Trump can ill afford to give Republicans a reason to abandon him. That effectively cuts him off from running to Schumer and Pelosi and asking them to help him enact new tax reforms, infrastructure investment, and trade policies.

I do not feel sorry for him. But I also can’t see how he can navigate out of the prison he’s constructed for himself. He’s barely been in office for two months and he’s already cut off every possibility for success.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.