Chuck and Nancy and Donald and Ivanka seemed to thoroughly enjoy their meeting at the White House the other day. Mitch and Paul, not so much.
Does it really surprise anyone that President Trump betrayed the Republican leaders who have been trying their best to carry water for him on Capitol Hill – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan – and is playing footsie with their Democratic rivals? It shouldn’t.
One thing that should be blindingly obvious by now is that political loyalty, for the president, is a one-way street. Yes, McConnell and Ryan embarrassed themselves and squandered precious political capital in a long, fruitless attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Yes, the Republican leaders have held their tongues time and again when Trump has manifested his unfitness for office. Yes, they have pretended not to notice the glaring conflicts of interest between Trump’s private business affairs and his public responsibilities.
Still, there was something brazen about the way events unfolded Wednesday. First, Ryan tells reporters that a short-term, three-month extension on the debt ceiling, tied to relief funds for Hurricane Harvey – an idea supported by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – was “ridiculous and disgraceful.”
Then, in the Oval Office meeting, Trump stuns everyone by endorsing the Schumer-Pelosi plan – and agrees to work with the Democrats on repealing the debt ceiling altogether, according to The Washington Post. Later, on Air Force One, Trump goes on about what a productive meeting he had with “Chuck and Nancy,” not bothering to mention the GOP congressional leaders by name. Ouch.
Some shell-shocked attendees said they believed the meeting went off the rails when the president’s daughter Ivanka, who has an office in the West Wing, cheerily dropped in and disrupted the conversation’s focus. But this sounds to me like nothing more than a search for a scapegoat. Ryan and McConnell have no one to blame but themselves.
Trump is many things but he is not, nor has he ever been, a committed Republican. He seized control of the party in a hostile takeover. His campaign positions on trade, health care, entitlements and other issues bore no resemblance to GOP orthodoxy. He has instincts – some of them odious, from what we can intuit about his views on race and culture – but his worldview is transactional and situational, not ideological.
McConnell, Ryan and many of their Republican colleagues in Congress convinced themselves that Trump could be a useful instrument – that he would sign whatever legislation they sent him, and therefore they would be able to enact a conventional GOP agenda of tax and entitlement cuts.
Trump might have gone along with this scenario, at least for a while. But Ryan and McConnell utterly failed to hold up their end of the bargain.
Look at the health care fiasco from Trump’s point of view. His campaign position was that Obamacare had to be repealed, but that the replacement should be a system offering health care for “everyone.” What Ryan and the House delivered, however, was a plan that would make 23 million people lose health insurance and cut nearly $800 billion from Medicaid.
Trump called that legislation “mean” but was so desperate for a big win that he backed it anyway. In the Senate, however, McConnell wasn’t able to deliver anything at all – not even a stripped-down measure to repeal the ACA now and replace it later. Trump was humiliated and angry. “Mitch M” and “Paul R” became frequent targets of his barbed tweets.
So on Wednesday, Trump dished out a little humiliation of his own. At the White House meeting, the president reportedly cut off Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin – who supported the Ryan-McConnell approach to raising the debt ceiling – in mid-sentence to announce that he was siding with Schumer and Pelosi.
The stunning slapdown almost overshadowed another surprise that Trump had delivered Tuesday evening: After sending Attorney General Jeff Sessions out to announce the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Trump tweeted that if Congress did not act within six months, he would “revisit” the question.
What Trump clearly has already revisited is his belief in the ability of the conservative GOP congressional majorities to get anything meaningful done. He seems to be at least flirting with the idea of working instead with Democrats and GOP moderates – working not with but around the House and Senate leadership.
I just hope Schumer and Pelosi know not to trust him the way McConnell and Ryan did.
Reach Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.