Trump trumps Trump

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Sept. 11, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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North Korea's test last week of what probably was a boosted fission nuclear weapon was recorded as a 6 on the Richter scale. Donald Trump's dazzling display of political broken field running, however, scored double figures in the political equivalent of the Richter measurement for earthquakes. With the debt ceiling as the explosive ingredient, in a single sitting with leaders of Capitol Hill, the president performed the hat trick of turning political adversaries into allies and allies into adversaries.

His alliance with House and Senate Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that will produce a temporary postponement of debate on the debt ceiling until December shocked, horrified and infuriated Republicans in both houses. Speaker Paul Ryan earlier that day condemned the idea and along with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sat stone faced as Trump consorted with the enemy. And this political theater was surely stage-managed by the arrival of first daughter Ivanka Trump to this meeting.

The agreement on temporary debt-ceiling relief with the Democrats provided a short-term victory for the president. But, in its stead, this pact is a longer-term time bomb that almost certainly will explode in the president's face. Combined with the president's decision to give Congress six months to deal with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) that has produced a firestorm of criticism on both sides of the aisle, understanding what the president's objectives are may indeed determine the future success or failure of his administration.

One rational answer is that because Congress is so overloaded with legislation on taxes, healthcare, infrastructure and hurricane relief and has only a few days in session before the fiscal year ends, postponing the debt ceiling debate is a prudent measure. Yet, if that were the case, why not provide advance warning, certainly to Republicans, especially in the Cabinet? Cutting Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin off in mid-sentence as he argued against postponement likewise suggested a case of presidential ready-fire-aim.

Regardless, the president has managed to alienate his party for what appears to be a spur of the moment whim rather than a well-considered decision. Compared with memories on Capitol Hill, elephants are forgetful. Getting even rather than getting mad will be an emotional reality in Congress on the part of many Republicans for a very long time to come.

Regarding DACA, over the past decades, gridlock in Congress has allowed or compelled presidents of both parties to rely increasingly on executive order as a surrogate for legislation that was not or could not be passed. Clearly, opponents will ascribe the most venal political intentions on the part of presidents to circumvent what after all is the branch of government that appears as the First Article of the Constitution. President Barack Obama, after consistently complaining that executive orders should not replace the legislative process, put DACA in place in 2012. The timing was cynically viewed as a purely political act and part of the 2012 presidential campaign. Yet, in fairness, how were the some 800,000 "dreamers" who were brought to the United States as children to be treated?

More likely, President Trump believes that Congress will not do its job. That in turn will give the president the reason or excuse to exercise greater political power, resonating well with his base. After all, even if Mr. Trump's public approval ratings are in the mid-30 percent range, that is three time better than Congress' standing.

While such a strategy is logical and could work, the president's personality and temperament generate dangerous antibodies that could prove fatal to his policies and ability to govern. Presiding as a real estate mogul answerable to no one, the president acts as if his policy dictates are infallible. Further, failing to socialize or prepare the political universe that ultimately will define success or failure except by Twitter, the president ensures he is creating unnecessary enemies. And his cynical view of loyalty to him as unidirectional is not helpful.

Thus, the president has created a reality in which no matter what he does, rightly, wrongly or sensibly, 2/3 or more of the public will criticize him even for the most mundane or basic activities. One suspects that if seen eating a peanut butter sandwich or hot dog, the president will draw withering reactions. Can anything be done?

With high probability the answer is likely to be no. Trump trumps Trump may be the defining expression for this president. That will make governing far more difficult and indeed not only preclude a second term. His first is already in jeopardy.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America has Lost Every War it Starts," will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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