How did we get into this sorry situation? A meltdown of this magnitude typically has many causes. In this case, the president’s inability to reach some sort of deal rests heavily on several basic failures of understanding by him and his team. These include:
1. A failure to grasp how divided government works. The president somehow came to believe that he’d have more leverage once the Democrats took control of the House. Maybe someone convinced him that, after the transfer of power, he could shift blame for the impasse onto Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a favorite villain of Republicans. Or maybe he assumed that Pelosi & Company would fold in the face of the dysfunction and public outcry a shutdown would bring. Whatever the logic, Team Trump assumed Democrats would become more pliable, and a deal would emerge.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump has been spoiled by two years of Congress being led by weak-kneed members of his party who, even when troubled by his excesses, largely let him run amok, lest he call down upon them the wrath of the Republican base.
But for their part, Ms. Pelosi and her new majority are concerned about presenting a united front against Mr. Trump’s challenges to constitutional authority. With the president’s wall having become a flash point, the political costs to Democrats for cutting a deal seen as advantageous to Mr. Trump would be steep.
2. A failure to understand the costs of playing only to the base. While Republican lawmakers may be awed by Mr. Trump’s command of their party’s troops, Democrats are more motivated by the fact that the bulk of the electorate is tired of the president’s divisive demagogy. Time and again, Mr. Trump has chosen partisanship over leadership, doing nothing to expand his appeal. This puts him at a disadvantage in wooing the public to his side of the wall debate.
3. A failure to understand Nancy Pelosi. Apparently, Mr. Trump never got around to reading “The Art of War,” or at least not Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know your enemy.” If he had, the president would have tried to develop at least a basic working relationship with Ms. Pelosi. The White House clearly assumed that, at some point — maybe after she secured the speaker’s gavel — Ms. Pelosi would bend to Mr. Trump’s will. But the speaker is not impressed with bluster. She is seldom cowed by political pressure from her own team, much less the opposing one. She plays the long game, and her will is as formidable as Mr. Trump’s, possibly more so. One key difference: Ms. Pelosi knows how the legislative process works.
Though she, too, has avoided public name-calling, it’s clear Pelosi doesn’t feel the same admiration for Trump. After a recent meeting at the White House, Pelosi returned to the Hill and questioned his manhood before a room full of House Democrats. She likened negotiating with him to getting sprayed by a skunk, and expressed exasperation that he is even president.
Pelosi’s allies say she doesn’t trust him, pointing to
- a tentative immigration compromise they reached in 2017 that she believes Trump backed out of. She’s noticed how
- he’s blamed Republican congressional leaders when his base decries spending bills, and
- upended their legislative plans with surprise tweets.
“Speaker Pelosi has a history of bipartisan accomplishments. … But the test for this president is figuring where he stands on issues from one day to the next,” said Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff.
Pelosi is also uncomfortable with Trump’s handling of facts — a big obstacle, in her mind, to cutting deals with him — and has occasionally called him out. During their first meeting after his inauguration, when Trump opened the gathering by bragging that he’d won more votes than Hillary Clinton, Pelosi was the only person in the room to correct him, noting that his statement was false and he’d lost the popular vote.
Since then, Pelosi has tried to correct Trump privately, her allies say. She doesn’t like fighting in public, they added, and it was one of the main reasons she tried, in vain, to end the sparring match over border wall funding that unfolded on TV live from the West Wing last month.
Sources close to Pelosi say she’s willing to work with Trump despite her party’s total rejection of him. Her confidants note that when Pelosi first became speaker in 2007, some Democrats were calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush over the invasion in Iraq. Pelosi ignored them and went on to strike major deals with Bush, including a bank bailout and stimulus package in response to the 2008 financial meltdown.
“They became friends,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Pelosi confidant. For the incoming speaker, “It’s always about: Can you get things done? There are always going to be different points of view. How do we overcome them to get to a conclusion?”
Pelosi allies say as long as Trump is willing to compromise on Democratic priorities, she’ll work with him, too. But with the shutdown dragging into Pelosi’s takeover on Jan. 3, there’s a serious question about whether the two can make any headway.
On New Year’s Day, Trump and Pelosi exchanged words on Twitter over the shutdown — relatively mild ones, especially by Trump’s standards — in a sign of the tense days and weeks ahead.
“I think the president respects her and wants to work with her … Their personalities would lend themselves to strike deals,” Short said. “But I don’t know if Democrats will allow it. … She’s going to have so many members who will object to any transaction or communication with the president, that it puts her in a tight spot.”
It’s just as unclear whether Trump is willing to risk the wrath of his base by compromising with Pelosi. Just as he did on immigration, promising a “bill of love” to protect Dreamers from deportation, Trump privately told Pelosi after their contentious televised negotiation session that he wants to make a deal with her. Even after news that she’d questioned his masculinity went viral, he called her that afternoon to reiterate: We can work together to avert a shutdown.
But that was more than three weeks ago. The two haven’t spoken since.
Trump’s argument with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over the wall shows he has no interest in policy, he just wants to “have fights with Democrats … on camera,” says Ezra Klein. John Heilemann and Kimberly Atkins join Lawrence.
If Trump wanted the wall, he wouldn’t have televised the meeting. The difference in funding is relatively small, but Trump offered nothing to trade. If he really wanted the wall, he would have offered citizenship for the Dreamers, which could have been popular for both sides.
In the closed door session, Trump said Mexico will pay for the wall one way or the other. He said the new Nafta will allow the government to collect money.
A reconsideration of tactics is in order.
- They could create a proposal on 1 piece of paper, deliver it and walk out
Sorry, investors, but there is no sanity clause.
Two years ago, after the shock of Donald Trump’s election, financial markets briefly freaked out, then quickly recovered. In effect, they decided that while Trump was manifestly unqualified for the job, temperamentally and intellectually, it wouldn’t matter. He might talk the populist talk, but he’d walk the plutocratic walk. He might be erratic and uninformed, but wiser heads would keep him from doing anything too stupid.
In other words, investors convinced themselves that they had a deal: Trump might sound off, but he wouldn’t really get to make policy. And, hey, taxes on corporations and the wealthy would go down.
But now, just in time for Christmas, people are realizing that there was no such deal — or at any rate, that there wasn’t a sanity clause. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Put an unstable, ignorant, belligerent man in the Oval Office, and he will eventually do crazy things.
To be clear, voters have been aware for some time that government by a bad man is bad government. That’s why Democrats won a historically spectacular majority of the popular vote in the midterms. Even the wealthy, who have been the prime beneficiaries of Trump policies, are unhappy: A CNBC survey finds that millionaires, even Republican millionaires, have turned sharply against the tweeter in chief.
.. The reality that presidential unfitness matters for investors seems to have started setting in only about three weeks (and around 4,000 points on the Dow) ago.
- First came the realization that Trump’s much-hyped deal with China existed only in his imagination. Then came
- his televised meltdown in a meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,
- his abrupt pullout from Syria,
- his firing of Jim Mattis and
- his shutdown of the government because Congress won’t cater to his edifice complex and build a pointless wall. And now there’s
- buzz that he wants to fire Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Oh, and along the way we learned that Trump has been engaging in raw obstruction of justice, pressuring his acting attorney general (who is himself a piece of work) over the Mueller investigation as the tally of convictions, confessions and forced resignations mounts.
.. And even trade war might not do that much harm, as long as it’s focused mainly on China, which is only one piece of U.S. trade. The really big economic risk was that Trump might break up Nafta, the North American trade agreement: U.S. manufacturing is so deeply integrated with production in Canada and Mexico that this would have been highly disruptive. But he settled for changing the agreement’s name while leaving its structure basically intact, and the remaining risks don’t seem that large.
.. Now imagine how this administration team might cope with a real economic setback, whatever its source. Would Trump look for solutions or refuse to accept responsibility and focus mainly on blaming other people? Would his Treasury secretary and chief economic advisers coolly analyze the problem and formulate a course of action, or would they respond with a combination of sycophancy to the boss and denials that anything was wrong? What do you think?