Trump's White House is coming up short,writes Leslie Vinjamuri
Obama-era policies remain and the myth of Trump as the populist, get-it-done businessman is debunked, she writes
Editor’s Note: Leslie Vinjamuri is an associate fellow at Chatham House, where she serves on the US and the Americas program as well as on the institute’s council. She is also associate professor in international relations at SOAS University of London. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
As Congress lurches towards its August recess, Donald Trump’s White House is coming up short.
In the first 100 days, Trump’s attacks were centered on the intelligence community, the media and the Democrats. These targets remain, but now the administration has new ones, too – closer to home: the Cabinet and the West Wing.
Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s newly anointed communications director, has threatened to fire his West Wing colleagues for leaks. Trump continues his vitriolic attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first member of his cabinet to be confirmed and a key proponent of Trump’s tough-on-immigration, tough-on-crime agenda. And Friday afternoon, he announced he was booting Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in favor of current Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
Further afield, Trump’s most desired friends seem to be attacking him. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the nation that Trump has most wanted to court, is retaliating against Congress’ new round of sanctions by seizing US properties and calling for a reduction in its diplomatic staff by the end of the year. And Congress’ vote against the “skinny” proposal for health care reform might be the decisive blow in Trump Round One.
But what more does this signify?
For starters, it is crystal clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Some of the words have changed (and this matters), norms and ethics are taking a hit for sure, but few of Trump’s campaign promises have materialized and Obama-era policies remain mostly intact. Even those Trump reversals with some traction (the travel ban, the decision to get out of the Paris climate agreement) face intense resistance and determination from civil society, the courts and the private sector.
But two myths in particular are being rapidly debunked. One is that Trump’s expertise in business would translate into rapid success in Washington. Instead, chaos in the White House, combined with the failure to appoint hundreds of senior staff to key positions across the executive branch, has helped generate an alarming level of dysfunctionality.
Mixed messages out of the White House have sometimes been rationalized as a tactic that might help Trump succeed. But mixed messages and sudden policy reversals have mainly created a degree of unpredictability that now reads more as disarray and incompetence than strategy. When some countries send mixed messages, others know this is a coordinated game designed to confuse. With Trump, who is convinced?
The second myth? Trump is the populist that America has been waiting for. Only it turns out this populist emperor has no clothes. The debate over health care reform has confirmed this. Trump’s ambition to repeal Obamacare remained unwavering despite repeated analysis from the Congressional Budget Office that in the “best-case” scenario (that is, the so-called “skinny” bill), 15 million or more Americans would lose their health care almost immediately, and far more within a few years.
In fact, Trump’s desire to repeal health care reform appears to be driven by the need to deliver tax cuts to corporate America, and also to tweet his success.
The question now is: What next? How much longer can this go on?
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The prospect of dramatic change seems unlikely. At 36%, Trump’s approval rating is historically low, but resilient. Attacks on Jeff Sessions – who has been popular with Trump’s base, pushed forward with immigration reform and taken a tough line on crime – have not dented support for the President.
Ironically, the Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare is likely to preserve support for the President. In the past several months, popular support for Obamacare has increased, and, based on the CBO projections, the dismantling of the program would have likely backlashed badly on Trump when millions found themselves paying dearly for health care.
On the face of it, Republicans in Congress also still support the President. Health care reform may have failed, but 49 Senators voted to repeal and replace Obamacare. Only three voted against this.
But the President’s room for maneuvering is shrinking. Congress has just voted for sanctions that would place significant constraints on the President’s control over this critical lever of foreign policy.
Russia’s retaliation underscores a growing trend – the rest of the world is tiring of a President that cannot govern at home or be civil abroad. Governing is likely to become more, not less, difficult. But so long as Republicans continue to support Trump, the economy remains strong, and there is no obvious other game in town, the current series of debacles seems likely to continue.