It’s gotten to the point where one might almost feel sorry for Donald Trump. While that “almost” reflects a gap too wide for Trump’s opponents to bridge, it can be said that February has, thus far, been cruel to the US president, though he clearly is no innocent victim.
During the first full week of the month, Trump’s White House faced more trouble than befalls most presidencies in a couple of months, or longer. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,000 points twice, wiping out all the gains that the bull market had racked up for the year so far. No one knew when the markets would steady themselves or whether Trump’s vaunted tax cuts, among other policies, were fueling fears of economic over-heating and higher interest rates.
Trump had made things worse for himself by doing what his predecessors in the Oval Office had wisely avoided. He regularly took credit for stock-market gains. The supposed great businessman had forgotten that what goes up eventually comes down.
Also that week, Congress passed a two-year budget agreement. Ordinarily, a longer-term and bipartisan deal would be good news; but the deal was estimated to guarantee a staggering $1 trillion annual budget deficit. The Republican Party, which had long claimed to be the party of fiscal responsibility, forfeited that identity. Congressional Democrats and Republicans were able to agree by giving each side essentially what it wanted in new spending – without budget cuts or tax increases to offset the impact on the deficit.
Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all presided over tax increases, with Clinton’s fiscal policy actually generating a budget surplus in the final years of his second term. But then along came George W. Bush, who argued that the surplus should be returned to the people. And so it was – and then some. From then on, raising taxes became anathema to the Republicans, and, in time, most of Bush’s “temporary” tax cuts became permanent.
Trump’s promise to cut taxes again is widely viewed as a major reason why Republican congressional leaders – and, most important, the party’s big donors – supported him in 2016 and continued to do so. But the members of Congress also became fearful of Trump’s “base,” which may represent only about a third of the electorate but is very strong in Republican congressional districts and could back a more right-leaning challenger in the party primary.
Republicans pretended that the tax cuts were aimed at the middle class, though they mostly helped the wealthy and business. Trump and his allies have been strenuously trying to talk the country into liking the tax cuts, which are front-loaded to help people before the 2018 midterm elections, in which the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and many governorships and state legislatures will be up for grabs. Republicans have been in a panic that they might lose both the House and the Senate, though the latter is less likely, given that many more Democratic than Republican incumbents must defend their seats. And much can happen by then to change the electoral equation.
As if all this weren’t enough, the Trump White House was suddenly hit with a wave of wife-beating charges. The Republican Party was already in trouble with women, and how Trump and his aides handled the situation was not helpful. Early in the week, it became known that two ex-wives of the little-known Rob Porter – whose anodyne job title, Staff Secretary, belied the importance of his job (getting the right papers to the president) – had told the FBI that Porter had been physically and emotionally violent with them during their (brief) marriages to him.
As a result, Porter had never received the full security clearance that his job required; even after a year, he had only “interim” clearance. It is unusual for uncertainty about the security fitness of a senior White House aide to last so long – as it also has in the case of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who handles foreign-policy issues. The concern in such cases is that there may be information that could expose the official to blackmail. A Trump speechwriter also had to step down after complaints by his ex-wife.
The story grew worse when it became known that Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and White House counsel Don McGahn had known about Porter’s situation for some time (McGahn had known for a year, and Kelly for at least several months), and had apparently taken no steps to prevent Porter from handling highly classified information. So a scandal about spousal abuse quickly morphed into one about possible security lapses.
The Trump presidency has featured an uncommonly long trail of aides forced to resign or fired for various reasons. Most experienced veterans of the executive branch weren’t drawn to work for Trump, and he and his circle of advisers blackballed anyone who had opposed him during the 2016 election. So the Trump presidency didn’t start with first-class personnel, and the staff hasn’t improved.
This is not surprising. Trump is known to be a very difficult person to work for: impetuous and intemperate, he routinely screams at his aides. People have risen and fallen in his estimation within a matter of days, and factions within the White House have feuded constantly.
Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who in late July 2017 switched from Secretary of Homeland Security to White House chief of staff, has established some order in the West Wing. But he has foresworn trying to change Trump’s behavior – from his unpredictable but often consequential tweets, to calls made on a personal phone from his private quarters (so that Kelly couldn’t monitor or listen in).
Kelly, it turned out, was also almost as morally obtuse as his boss: he’d already displayed racial insensitivity, and when it came to domestic violence, he was clueless. He cared only that Porter had been doing a good job and was needed, so he put out a statement praising Porter to the skies and privately urged him to remain on the job.
But, as the media firestorm spread, Kelly changed his story and directed the White House staff to lie on his behalf – to assert that he had responded swiftly and negatively to the news about Porter’s former wives. Kelly’s fate today is uncertain.
And what about Trump, of whom at least a dozen women have complained of unwanted sexual advances (if not worse)? At the end of an eventful week, he set off a new firestorm, by speaking of his sympathy for Porter, and suggesting that women who make such complaints aren’t necessarily to be believed.
Elizabeth Drew is a contributing editor to The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall.
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