Only Trump could spend days accusing President Barack Obama of doing nothing to stop Russian election meddling and then call the operation a “hoax” after talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man who engineered it.
Only Trump could have a 56% approval rating on the economy — often the most important barometer of presidential popularity — but an across-the-board rating that is 10-12 points lower.
And only Trump could claim he’s a paragon of transparency while suing multiple entities to prevent scrutiny of his affairs and obstructing congressional oversight on multiple fronts.
These head-snapping events help explain why the country is so deeply divided and why the 2020 election this far out is impossible to call – despite an economy that, against all odds, goes from strength to strength.
Orchestrating the disruption this week, as always, was the President – inciting outrage, tearing at governing norms and demanding credit for wins real and imagined.
Always on the attack
In the eyes of Trump supporters, the chaos and the confrontation and the shattering of governing traditions is exactly why they sent the President to Washington in the first place.
But it is also why many Washington watchers fear that this presidency is doing irrevocable damage to the fabric of American democracy as well as its reputation as a global leader.
The political and personal choices that the President makes from the center of the storm also mean he doesn’t get the credit he and his fans think he deserves for a new age of economic affluence.
He finds it impossible to just stick to a message about jobs and rising wages, as a more conventional president might. That’s partly because he cannot turn his cheek from even minor provocations. All-out attack is his default mode.
Trump has built his political viability on the bedrock of an inflamed Republican base. The fights he wages in Washington, on immigration and accountability, are vital to keeping that connection energized.
It’s also the reason why the President unleashes graphic falsehoods on issues like abortion, as he did at a rally in Wisconsin last Saturday night.
“The baby is born,” Trump said. “The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully, and then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby. I don’t think so.”
Such rhetoric might rock his rally crowds. But it makes it hard for Trump to find common ground with more moderate voters, even though he’s also talking about a $2 trillion infrastructure package, mooted in talks with congressional Democrats this week.
Tactics that alienate non-supporters also mean that Trump does not have the option to point to the economy and declare “It’s Morning in America” as Ronald Reagan did in cruising to re-election in 1984.
The vitriol adds context to polling that shows Trump losing to almost every major 2020 Democrat, despite marshaling the most fervent base of any modern president.
Envy of the world
Events on Friday were a case study in the Trump presidency.
“We can all agree that AMERICA is now #1. We are the ENVY of the WORLD — and the best is yet to come!” an exuberant Trump tweeted on Friday morning after Labor Department data showed unemployment had dipped to 3.6% – the lowest level since 1969.
For his own good, Trump should perhaps have kept on that theme. But he finds it impossible to act in a conventional way. It’s the key to his political power, yet it might end up being his downfall.
“For some reason people are giving him credit for the economy, but at the same time there is a lot of other issues swirling around out there where he doesn’t score well,” former Ohio Gov. John Kasich told CNN’s Kate Bolduan.
“If I were a Trump adviser, I would say ‘Just talk about the economy’ – but he gets into all these other subjects and he doesn’t connect with people right now.”
Within hours, Trump proved his old 2016 GOP rival right.
In an Oval Office photo-op, the President described his phone call with the Russian President – and slipped back into his own habit of elevating Moscow’s talking points above America’s.
“(Putin) sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started up as a mountain and ended up as a mouse,” Trump said of the Mueller report.
“But he knew that because he knew that there was no collusion.”
Later, the President tweeted that he and Putin had discussed a number of issues including the “Russia hoax.”
His comments came after a week again dominated by the Mueller report, which found that Russia worked to secure a Trump victory in 2016 because it thought it would benefit.
The special counsel also concluded that Trump’s team “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
The report also did not establish a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign team and Russia, and the special counsel chose not to reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice – though offered evidence on both sides of the case.
After the call with Putin, Trump also trampled on his own administration’s policy towards the escalating crisis in Venezuela to Russia’s favor.
Days after Mike Pompeo accused Moscow of stalling the overthrow of disputed President Nicolas Maduro, Trump contradicted his secretary of state.
“(Putin) is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela,” Trump said.
By the end of Friday, the big headline was no longer the economy.
’Lying’ to Congress
Trump’s comments on Russia were not the only time in the week when it seemed Washington was poised for a historic fracture.
On Thursday for instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Attorney General William Barr of the crime of lying to Congress.
Her comments followed revelations that Mueller wrote to Barr in March to complain that the attorney general’s public description of the report did not capture its substance and context.
They also followed Barr’s contentious appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Mueller report Wednesday, and escalated a seething separation of powers confrontation.
Barr, who refused to testify before a Democratic-led House committee, is now in danger of being found in contempt of Congress. Some Democrats want him impeached.
The standoff comes as the White House cements its strategy of blanket resistance to subpoena demands by House Democrats for appearances by officials and for documents.
Trump is suing to stop his own accountants from handing over his financial records. The Treasury has blown past two deadlines for the handover of Trump’s tax returns to another House committee.
The President and his children have also lodged another lawsuit to try to block the release records from two banks to another House committee.
The President said Friday he was still deciding whether to let former White House counsel Don McGahn appear before Congress. McGahn was a key witness to behavior by the President that the special counsel appeared to suggest could amount to obstruction of justice.
“There has been no President in history that has given what I’ve given in terms of looking at, just a total witch hunt,” Trump said on Friday.
The White House views the Democratic oversight offensive as “presidential harassment.”
But its contempt for Congress’s investigative function suggests the confrontation is is heading for the courts and one of the most important struggles over Constitutional powers in recent history.