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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Establishment Boxes Trump In Once Again

A suddenly pitchfork version of President Trump emerged last week, wailing about the Coronavirus package, only to find himself pocket-vetoed.
Donald Trump

After months of tit-for-tat negotiation between a White House, Senate and House leadership that are not always on speaking terms and don’t agree on coronavirus safety protocols, a new, $900 billion relief package had been agreed upon last week in this unprecedented of lame duck sessions.

That is, until Congress sent the deal to Trump himself, and the 45th president revealed a stunning, eleventh hour change-of-heart. Essentially in the bunker with rare public appearances or official pronouncements since most media organizations declared Joe Biden the next president, Trump appeared behind a podium in a video released last Tuesday night. He reiterated that he was “determined to pursue every legal and constitutional option available to stop the theft of the presidential election.” 

But, more significantly, President Trump said he would reject the package. 

Trump’s unveiling of a new, more radical course followed mass pardons earlier in the evening, including some early political backers since ensnared by Johnny Law. But for a man all but certain to exit Washington in a month, Trump continued to show flashes of the populist pitchman who triumphed in the 2016 contest, against all odds, and may yet run for president a third time. 

Trump suddenly demanded the “pork” (quotations, presidential) be sliced from the agreement brokered by Congress, and that the allotment of $600 per most U.S. adults be increased two-and-a-half fold. And so, Trump left Washington two days before Christmas in a huff. 

But he had won rare support for the $2000 idea from Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker from San Francisco and the bete noire the president has long since stopped speaking to. Andy Biggs — the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, the main Congressional organ of the anti-establishment right — urged a “pocket veto” of the legislation as it existed, or rejection by inaction. 

But some of Trump’s own friends worked against him, including Kevin McCarthy. 

Trump once considered the man for chief of staff, even after the duo struck up an improbable friendship following 2016 disclosures that McCarthy joked that Trump might actually be paid by Vladimir Putin. McCarthy, Pelosi’s Republican and statewide opposite from California’s Central Valley, is soon to be the second-most powerful Republican in Washington, even America’s likely next House Speaker, as the country settles in for a return of a Democratic White House, and girds for Pelosi’s promised retirement. 

Come February, McCarthy will be in D.C. and Trump will not, and the minority leader’s fingerprints were all over the rejection of Trump’s $2000 proposal in the House by unanimous consent. 

McCarthy was given rhetorical cover by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and Mitt Romney, the upper chamber’s most famous member. This all went down Christmas Eve as McCarthy lashed Pelosi for a “selective hearing” of Trump’s grievances. It was an easy enough charge as Trump concluded an incoherent 2020: assassinating Iran’s top general, as he wailed against endless war, cutting a generous trade deal with a Chinese government he’s spent a career castigating, instituting a lengthy national lockdown he plainly didn’t believe in and attacking the putative anti-racist movement even as his campaign labeled Joe Biden a racist. 

So, on Sunday, from Palm Beach, the president caved. 

Earlier in the day, “the shows” — as Trump, as a candidate, notoriously termed them, that is, T.V. news and its signature Sunday morning docket — had been a slaughter. Larry Hogan —  Maryland’s governor and a popular, centrist 2024 hopeful — urged immediate passage of the existing agreement. 

“First of all,” Hogan told Dana Bash, about the $2000 figure. “If the president thought that was the case, he should have weighed in eight months ago. We’ve been fighting for this since March or April— or at least eight days ago.” It was a legitimate point. Where had Trump been when Congress was poised to pass a package with no individual checks at all (that is, until Sen. Josh Hawley intervened)?

In the end, Trump showed himself to be what he has been throughout his presidency, not as reckless as his critics’ wildest, Hitlerian dreams, nor as effective as they feared. 

With the elapse of some unemployment benefits over the weekend, Trump was boxed in above all by Sen. Pat Toomey, from Pennsylvania (now central to any Republican claim on power), who told Fox News Sunday, “You don’t get everything you want, even if you’re president of the United States.” The famous Rolling Stones refrain, “you can’t always get what you want,” had been the odd, but perhaps appropriate, signature tune at Trump’s rallies throughout his presidency, so perhaps this was all music to his ears. Trump will “be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire” and little else, Toomey said. 

He didn’t.

For nervous financiers preoccupied with the day-to-day bottomline, or the political amateurs perhaps just now nervously tuning into the Trump show, the whole affair likely evades explanation. But there is clear precedent: study how Trump handled foreign policy.

Trump, with the cardinal exception of Iran, talked a nice game of realism and restraint and re-orienting the fight toward China, the nation’s peerless rival. 

His justified perturbations about Syria, for instance, compelled the resignation of James Mattis, his vaunted Defense secretary. But for all the noise, America remains in Syria, and not merely covertly, which raises serious questions not just about Trump’s follow-through but, of course, Mattis’ true rationale. 

On Russia, Trump has been portrayed as nothing less than Putin’s patsy, but if the Kremlin did have kompromat on America’s 45th president, they didn’t get much for it, as Trump’s administration has been the most anti-Russian since Ronald Reagan’s, at least as measured by sanctions— which one suspects is what counts in Moscow. 

On China, Trump’s welcome shift in tone on trade was in constant conflict, push-came-to-shove, one of his former top advisors told me, with Trump’s golfer view of the stock market “as presidential scorecard.” In the end, despite the entrepreneurial efforts of Trade Representative advisor Robert Lighthizer and Senior White House official Peter Navarro, the duo was outgunned. Building on their efforts will be the work of a future administration, perhaps Biden’s, as tapped national security advisor Jake Sullivan has spoken with curiosity about a shift in trade policy, to say nothing of a future Republican one, or independent takeover. 

Trump’s latest lack of follow-through would seem to be cause enough to give his most ardent backers pause: if anti-establishment control of Washington is the prize, how exactly, is that furthered by Trump remaining in Washington, or being welcomed back for an encore in four years? 

The likes of McConnell, McCarthy, Hogan and Romney got their way, as they seem to, and come the new year, it will be this quartet in office, not Mr. Trump. Presidents aren’t elected out of thin air, so many of Trump’s ideas are of course actually quite popular. In the latest episode, perhaps now the ultimate example, the president was actually pitching free money. But when times got rough in 2020, America opted for a staid establishmentarian from a party flirting with radicalism over further white noise.

So, the lesson for a successor (Hawley? Romney? Hogan?) would seem clear: governing matters. 

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