Give Donald Trump credit for one thing: he retains the ability to surprise people, especially his fellow-Republicans. In doing a deal with the Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to raise the debt ceiling, pass a spending resolution, and provide almost eight billion dollars in federal aid to the victims of Hurricane Harvey, Trump ignored the advice of his own Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and stunned the top two Republicans in Congress, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who were also in the Oval Office when the pact was reached, on Wednesday.
Many Republicans think that Trump got rolled, and they are furious that he publicly humiliated McConnell and Ryan. Trent Lott, a former Senate Majority Leader, spoke for many congressional Republicans when he said that Trump had acted in a “terrible” manner.
The G.O.P. protests are understandable. Mnuchin, McConnell, and Ryan were all pushing for a raise to the debt ceiling that would last eighteen months, which would have pushed the next threat of a government default past the 2018 midterm elections. After objections from “Chuck and Nancy,” as Trump referred to them on Wednesday, he accepted their counterproposal of a three-month extension, which sets up another legislative showdown in December. Just a couple of hours earlier, Ryan had publicly described the idea of extending the debt limit for such a short period as “ridiculous and disgraceful.” (Ryan Lizza has more on the deal.)
Why did Trump behave in this manner? Maybe he was just being his normal self and causing chaos. Some reports have suggested that he accepted the terms Schumer and Pelosi presented because he happened to be in the mood to do a deal. Many people in Washington believe that he was also sticking it to McConnell and Ryan, with whom he has been feuding all summer. It’s hard to think of a better way to knock the congressional leaders down a peg than to overrule them in front of their Democratic counterparts.
But was there more to it than that, perhaps? In recent weeks, there have been hints that Trump may be trying to embrace the kind of triangulation strategy that the political consultant Dick Morris urged on Bill Clinton after Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterms. “Trump is adopting his own version of ‘triangulation,’ trying to forge a separate and distinct identity from both Republicans and Democrats,” the Washington Post’sPaul Kane reported a couple of weeks ago. The article went on to say that some of Trump’s advisers “believe that dysfunction on Capitol Hill is likely to continue and that the further away Trump is positioned from the gridlock, the better his political standing will be heading toward his own reelection campaign in 2020.”
The strongest argument for Trump putting some distance between himself and the Republican Party is that it has already demonstrated its inability to govern alone. For seven years, it made repealing Obamacare its central goal. But, when Trump’s election victory presented the G.O.P. with an opportunity to finally achieve that objective, it failed to align its ultra-conservative and moderate-conservative elements. Trump surely hasn’t forgotten that it was Ryan who advocated for putting health-care reform first on the agenda this year. The President had wanted to go with tax reform.
Another challenge that has proved beyond the Republican Party has been guaranteeing that the U.S. government doesn’t default on its debts. “Mr. Ryan lacked a majority for raising the debt ceiling, which meant he had to go hat in hand to Ms. Pelosi for Democratic votes,” the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal noted on Thursday. After reaching an agreement with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump can finally claim he’s getting some stuff done: addressing one national emergency (the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey) and averting two others (a government shutdown and a debt default).
To be sure, these things would almost certainly have been addressed eventually. But, before such a resolution arrived, there might well have been another political crisis, and some tremors in the financial markets. With Trump’s approval rating standing at thirty-seven per cent—that’s according to the latest Gallup tracker—and a recent Washington Post poll showing that just sixteen per cent of Americans like how he has conducted himself as President, it must have been difficult for Trump to consider the wait-and-see approach.
And engaging with the Democrats on these financial issues didn’t cost him much. While G.O.P. leaders and members of the Freedom Caucus get highly exercised about debt limits and restraining federal spending, most ordinary Republicans, especially ardent Trump supporters, are more concerned with issues like immigration, trade, and jobs. “Donors and activists and thinkers might prefer the GOP be the party of Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley and Ben Sasse, but that just isn’t the case,” Ben Domenech, the conservative founder of the Federalist Web site, noted on Thursday.
Domenech suggested that Trump should follow up his foray into bipartisanship by seeking to twin popular Democratic ideas with Republican ones. “What does that look like?” he wrote. “daca for e-Verify. Minimum wage increase for welfare work requirements. Cutting payroll taxes while raising the phase out. Infrastructure billions for employee labor reforms. Universal catastrophic coverage in exchange for regulatory relief to drive down health care prices.”
This all seems rather fanciful. If Trump is genuinely interested in working with Democrats, why did he on Tuesday wade further into the cesspool of white identity politics by ordering the rescinding of Barack Obama’s policy of providing legal protections to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors, which is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or daca? (Trump’s subsequent tweets and verbal statements urging Congress to take action didn’t alter the fact that the government is no longer accepting daca applications, and the program will expire in six months.) After meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump flew to North Dakota, where he pitched his (as yet undisclosed plan) to give big tax cuts to rich people and big corporations. Democrats will fight those proposals to the last. On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans prepared to unveil yet another effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a bill sponsored by Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana. Then, on Thursday morning, Trump’s son, Donald, Jr., answered questions from staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about a meeting he had with Russians close to the Kremlin, and a number of Democratic senators sat in on the session.
In short, there is still a deadly political war going on in Washington, and Trump is at the center of it, whether he likes it or not. Very belatedly, he has indicated a willingness to cut a deal with his adversaries, and agreed to a ceasefire on one front. But that didn’t change very much.