Donald Trump’s deal with the congressional Democratic leadership addressed his short-term challenges but set him up for some longer-term problems.
President Donald Trump, the self-styled master of the “art of the deal,” turned a whopper on September 6, following a meeting with congressional leaders of both parties in the White House to chart the course of congressional action on the 2018 fiscal budget and on the US government debt limit. In addition, the leaders wanted to settle on at least a preliminary funding package for the victims of and destruction from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. The resulting agreement is nothing less than a stunner, as Trump rejected his own party’s proposals and sided with the Democratic leadership — a first for him since taking office nearly eight months ago. It marks what will be his first major legislative achievement since the Senate’s confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee, the conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, in April.
Failure to achieve a budget with at least a continuing resolution —a stopgap measure to keep the government operating until a full budget is passed, which is what was ultimately agreed — would have shut down the government. Failure to raise the debt limit, which would have meant effectively cutting off the government’s ability to borrow, could have brought even more disastrous consequences, including a potential meltdown of financial markets as creditors question the “full faith and credit” of the US government. These would have been unprecedented for a party in control of both houses of Congress and the White House and placed a dark cloud over the head of a president already under several self-made storm clouds.
The events in Houston over the last two weeks had further confounded the president. There has been overwhelming public sympathy for victims of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey and failure to extend relief through the agreed recovery and relief plan of $7.9 billion was anything but a slam dunk in a stingy Republican Congress always watchful of rising deficits. In addition, category 5 Hurricane Irma is bearing down on South Florida, promising more devastation and destruction. With some $50 billion spent for the victims and recovery after Superstorm Sandy devastated the US East Coast in 2013, Harvey and Irma can be expected to tally at least as much.
Trump had previously threatened to work with Democrats after the Republicans failed to deliver on the top Republican priority, overturning the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for which he very pointedly blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. These had been idle threats until now. It may seem the dealmaker himself has done his first big deal by siding with what many Republicans and the president’s base might consider the devil.
Was this really an example of the art of the deal? And has this changed the trajectory of the Trump presidency? Congress and the Trump administration were facing a laundry list of critical issues on which the fate of his first term, and indeed his presidency, may have depended. And it still might, considering that both the budget and debt limit deals only extend through mid-December, less than one year away from the country’s mid-term election, when Americans will vote for all of their 435 Members of the House of Representatives and one-third of their 100 Senators.
The deal merely kicks the can down the road until just before the year-end holiday recess and gives additional leverage to the minority Democrats. The latter will be looking to do their own deals then and not just on the budget and debt limit. Think health care, taxes, immigration, etc. The Republicans have been thinking of dispensing with the two major issues — the budget and debt limit — and of moving quickly on to longer-term, high-priority policy issues like tax reform. While not facing a deadline, it’s one of those must-do Trump and Republican Party platform items, much as Obamacare repeal was. Trump’s announced but unspecific plan already faces stiff opposition in Congress, even within his own party. He’ll be hard pressed to get a whole lot, having ceeded more leverage to the Democrats, come December.
Earlier in the week, the president placed another hurdle before the Congress, though giving it six months for action. The president canceled the Obama-era executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows young people brought illegally into the US as children to apply for permits to remain in the country, attend school and, most importantly, work. President Obama took the extraordinary executive action only after Congress failed to act at the time.
Now, Trump is serving notice to Congress: Take action or they’ll face deportation. It’ll be the Republicans, previously resistant to the idea, who will be responsible. With the September 6 deal, the Democrats, who almost unanimously favor allowing the some 800,000 “dreamers” to remain in the country permanently, now have significant bargaining chips to move the Republicans to their side.
So, despite the Trump deal with the Democrats, all major issues confronting this president remain in play, only now decidedly less in favor of the Republicans and Trump’s base. Where the president may be going now is anyone’s guess, since he’s never professed full-heartedly any specific ideology. According to ultra-conservative and pro-Trump Breitbart News senior editor-at-large, Peter Schweizer, Trump’s deal was nothing less than “capitulation” and gave the Democrats what they wanted.
In the face of so many other challenges, how supportive of these actions will the Republican Congress be, where already 100 in the House are said to oppose the debt ceiling deal? Can the self-styled master of the art of the deal lead as a president and guide Congress toward genuine compromises that address the nation’s pressing needs? Will he and the Republicans in Congress — not to mention more than a few Democrats — put ideology aside in the interests of the country and his presidency? The president surprised almost everyone by taking three major issues off the table, but only for now. In December, he’ll face all the same issues.
Also to be noted on the legislative front, the several congressional investigations underway into the Russian hacking of last year’s elections and alleged connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government will accelerate. These are separate from the Department of Justice’s probe led by the redoubtable former FBI director, Robert Mueller. Public hearings, witnesses parading before investigative committees and media, predictable media leaks, etc. are all likely to raise the political temperature setting off “engine warning” lights in the Trump administration and the Republican Party.
Outside Congress, the president faces many challenges, foremost of which is North Korea. How he handles that crisis — short of war, of course — will have a major impact on his standing among the American public, America’s allies and the world. His options, unfortunately, are few in the face of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s unfathomable obstinacy and threatening actions. Trump’s words border on tactless —though a far cry from the aggressive actions of the North Korean leader — and but for the tempering words of his secretaries of defense and state, anxiety levels would be much higher.
Other foreign policy flash points are surely to intervene, e.g., the Middle East, terrorism, Venezuela, Iran and even Russia. Any can be expected to throw a wrench into this heretofore dysfunctional White House and render more problematic all the crises and issues pending before the president.
Speaking of White House dysfunction, can President Trump keep his own house together? His new chief of staff, John Kelly, appears to be finally putting things into some relative order, dismissing the disruptive Steve Bannon and cutting loose a controversial and offensive communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. But the highly respected and able retired Marine Corps general may be serving as little more than White House duct tape if he isn’t able to “manage” his boss. According to one report, space may be growing between the two and while improvement can be expected within the White House staff, the real challenge remains in the Oval Office.
Finally, there remains the permanent stain of the president’s shocking response to the shameful events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month. Those comments probably did more to erode public confidence in Trump than anything he’s said or done either before or after becoming president. Many in his own party, including congressional members, felt obliged to distance themselves from his inexcusable remarks. Amongst all the other things he’s said or done, the Charlottesville comments have raised doubts about his fitness to govern the country.
America’s president is being tested. That is nothing unusual for the leader of the free world. It has happened repeatedly throughout US history, and recent history is replete with such periods. They can make or break a presidency. Already suffering from low approval ratings, Trump may see even his core supporters in the Republican Party questioning his presidential mettle after this month.
In his book, The Year of Decision: 1846 (one of a Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy on the settlement of the American West), historian Bernard DeVoto wrote of that time as “a decisive part of a decisive turn in the history of the United States.” Only the long perspective of history would allow one to ascribe such enormity of importance to what Donald Trump confronts today. But it would seem that the remainder of 2017 will be a “decisive part” in the progress of his presidency and, perhaps, his effort to turn American history.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.