by Niall Stanage · September 9, 2017
President Trump’s shock deal with the two top Democrats in Congress was a shot across the bows of his own party — and the after-effects are reverberating.
Some insiders forecast that Trump is headed for a definitive break with Republican leadership, seeking to forge a new political identity after a divisive first stretch in office. Others suggest the deal could be a one-off and that the president will return soon enough to mocking Democrats and catering to his base.
The deal, struck in a White House meeting and passed by Congress, funds the government and raises the debt ceiling for three months, exactly the terms sought by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Trump backed them his over the wishes of his own party, and his own Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin.
But some in Trump’s party are still scratching their heads as to what the president is hoping to accomplish by allowing those fiscal fights to recur in December, when Democrats are likely to have more leverage to extract concessions. By then, the holidays will be looming, while funds for relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey will already be on their way.
One aide to a conservative House Republican, who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, lamented that the GOP as a whole “did not have a game plan” to deal with the debt ceiling.
The aide added that Trump’s deal seemed “short-sighted” given that he has “given the Democrats another moment to argue for changes” without facing any obvious political downside for doing so.
Others see Trump’s actions as more evidence that the president is not a conservative in a conventional sense. Rather, he zigs and zags depending on his own whims, and his assessment of how he can turn a situation to his advantage.
“He is a guy whose success in politics has come from defying convention and protocol,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign. “I think he wants to get back to using the power of the presidency to his advantage, and it doesn’t matter to him if it’s to the Republican Party’s advantage or not.
“He’s not in it for the party,” Devine added. “He’s in it for himself.”
Trump’s propensity to go his own way has been sharpened because of his frustration with Republican leaders in Washington.
Trump had an uneasy relationship with the GOP establishment during his campaign.
After he won, he watched Congressional Republicans fail ignominiously to repeal and replace the Affordable Act — also known as ObamaCare — despite having promised voters they would do just that since the law’s inception in 2010.
The president used his Twitter account to jab repeatedly at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after the legislative push ran aground in the Senate. Aides to the president have been expressing exasperation about Ryan for even longer.
Some Republicans believe it was this animus, more than anything else, that moved Trump to side with the Democrats.
“I think he cut this deal with Pelosi and Schumer to punish Ryan and McConnell,” said GOP strategist Rick Tyler, who was communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) presidential bid last year. From Democrats, Tyler asserted, “he really got nothing in return.”
Still, there is wariness from virtually every quarter about trying to predict Trump’s next moves.
While some insiders who spoke to The Hill argued that the president was staking out a more centrist course in the hope of moving more legislation, others dissented.
It was just as likely, they suggested, that the debt deal could be an exception, and that Trump could return to mocking Democrats before long.
Trump “is himself like a hurricane,” said Tyler. “There is this enormous cone of uncertainty. You think he is going to move in one direction and then he shifts direction and goes somewhere else.”
Brad Blakeman, a GOP strategist who served on President George W. Bush’s White House staff, said Trump was motivated above all by a need to expedite aid in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Blakeman cautioned Democrats against doing a victory lap over the deal, especially if they hope to forge bipartisan agreements in other areas, such as infrastructure spending.
Word of this week’s deal came first from Schumer and Pelosi. The House minority leader later talked about how Trump had sent out a tweet at her behest, aimed at calming the nerves of those enrolled in the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. That caused consternation in conservative ranks, especially among those who took heart from Trump’s decision to phase out the Obama-era initiative.
“My caution for Democrats is ‘Stop the gloating,’” Blakeman said. “You got a good deal, the Republicans got a good deal, the country got a good deal. If you want another deal you have to act in good faith and stop this ‘I won.’ That is not healthy for future.”
Another conservative strategist, Greg Mueller, also sought to paint Trump’s actions in a broadly positive light, though he admitted that it “surprised a lot of people.”
Mueller, too, argued that Trump’s main motivation was hurricane aid. But even he acknowledged that “the flip side of it is that it doesn’t set Republicans up very well, unless there are other deals we don’t know about getting cut.”
Infrastructure would seem one obvious area where Trump might have the potential to attract Democratic votes. Tax reform would seem a less fertile area for bipartisan agreement.
Either way, Democrats have their own pressures to deal with, from a base that largely loathes Trump and doesn’t want to see their party leaders work with him.
At the least, however, the most unpredictable president of recent decades has scrambled the political deck of cards once again.
Devine, the Democratic strategist, argued that Trump might ultimately be considering running for reelection outside of the traditional two-party system, gambling that his base would be big enough to prevail in a three- or four-candidate race.
For now, Devine said, it looks as if Trump is trying his own brand of the “triangulation” practiced by then-President Clinton in the 1990s.
“It’s Trump-angulation,” he said with a laugh.