There has never been one moment, not one, when I believed Donald J. Trump would develop even marginal leadership skills once he became president. I never expected the much-ballyhooed “pivot” that would come just as soon as he realized how serious his job is and that we all might die if he screws up. The thought frankly never occurred to me. Waiting for a 71-year-old plutocrat to “mature” is not a high-yield use of my day. This is the guy who shouted, “Have a good time, everybody!” at a building filled with Harvey refugees.
Which is what made Wednesday so thoroughly fascinating. The man with the political instincts of a lobbed brick somehow closed out the day with a multi-dimensional checkmate maneuver that took down a number of large birds with one throw. The fact that Trump’s motives were entirely self-involved only adds frosting to the cake.
Republican leadership in Congress wanted to tie Harvey relief to a bill that would lift the debt ceiling for 18 months, effectively removing it as an issue in the 2018 midterms. The Democrats agreed, but wanted 3 months instead of 18. The GOP said no, Speaker Ryan rose up in high public dudgeon over the very idea of “playing politics” with the debt ceiling … and then Trump came down the mountain and abruptly made the deal with the Democrats, upending even his own Treasury Secretary in the process.
The Republican Party’s motto should be “Wait, what?” from here on out. Trump’s Democratic deal for three months of debt ceiling relief hit congressional Republicans like a bucket of bat urine. There was an almost feral recoiling within the ranks. With that deal, Trump ensured the Democrats could still campaign on the debt ceiling in 2018, and left them in a stronger negotiating position for future legislation.
More importantly, Trump removed the debt ceiling hostage from the room, infuriating the hard-right Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Group, whose members wanted in the aftermath of their ACA repeal failure to use the ceiling as leverage to attack Medicaid again. Finally, just for flavor, he made Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell look like a couple of windbag backbenchers who have no idea what’s really going on because they never get invited to the real meetings.
Congressional conservatives are now so thoroughly livid at Trump that they want to fire their own speaker, because someone has to pay the piper after this one. It isn’t just that Pelosi and Schumer thoroughly rolled the president of the United States in his own house. Trump turned out his pockets and put his hands over his head. As CNN political analyst Paul Begala noted, “Poor president Donald Trump was lucky he got out of the room with his hair.”
Lifting the debt ceiling was the right thing to do. Making a deal to get Harvey aid done was the right thing to do. Donald J. Trump couldn’t possibly care less about what is or is not the right thing to do. He did this for a few reasons, each of them more selfish than the last.
Trump is comprehensively pissed at McConnell and Ryan, and not just because nothing beyond a Supreme Court appointment has gotten done. He thinks those guys should be protecting him from the Russia probe, defending him vehemently in the press, and they haven’t. In Trump’s world, if you’re not taking a bullet for the boss, you’re with the snipers throwing shots. Whatever else this was, in Trump’s mind it was payback.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo did a fine job of explaining how this move speaks to the core essence of Trump himself. “Trump needs to dominate people,” writes Marshall. “Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both. So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available.”
This deal, and the resulting political convulsion that followed it, has also temporarily removed Trump’s devastating DACA decision from the national media conversation. Apparently, the president was surprised and hurt when his decision to blow up the lives of nearly a million people wasn’t met with universal approval. With this, he changed the subject and saved himself a few hours of grief.
There was nothing Machiavellian in this particular move — and certainly nothing noble or patriotic or even vaguely generous. Trump needed to put a hurt on someone in service to himself, and he chose his own party to be the victim.
Anyone in his orbit who thinks he likes them or is loyal to them should look at this deal as if it were a warning written in blood on the wall. To Trump, everyone is fungible. The leadership of his own party, 800,000 young students and workers, everyone. If it helps him even a little bit, Donald J. Trump will do like the narrator in the old song, “Me and My Uncle,” and leave your dead ass there by the side of the road.