Amid the Resistance-y funeral rites of John McCain, the president’s latest Twitter rants against his attorney general and the wild White House stories being circulated by Bob Woodward’s latest book, it’s a good time to revisit a familiar and crucial subject. To what extent is Donald Trump an extraordinarily dangerous president whose authoritarian style is constantly enabled by his advisers and his party? Or, alternatively, to what extent is he an extraordinarily weak president, constrained by his appointees and his notional allies at almost every turn?
I’ve made the case for the second narrative before, arguing that Trump isn’t really in charge of his own presidency, and that the Republican Congress — or at least the Republican Senate — has constrained his behaviour more than many Resisters acknowledge.
A year into his administration, I ran down the list of destabilising or immoral moves that Trump promised during his campaign and pointed out almost none had actually happened — no return to waterboarding, no exit from NATO or NAFTA, a hackishly implemented travel ban that only gestured at the promised Muslim-immigration shutdown, no change to the libels laws to shutter hostile newspapers, no staffing of the Cabinet or the judiciary with unqualified cronies, no practical concessions to Vladimir Putin in Russia’s near abroad, and more. In general the Trump of early 2018 looked like a Twitter authoritarian but a practical weakling, hounded by a special counsel and unable to even replace his own attorney general because Senate Republicans said he couldn’t.
But the last six months have tested that argument. Trump has asserted more control over his presidency’s staffing decisions, ejected obvious establishment plants like HR McMaster and Gary Cohn in favour of faces he likes from cable TV. He’s pursued a version of the trade wars that he touted on the hustings; he’s disrupted summits with allies and fallen prostrate before Putin; he’s conducted diplomacy with North Korea in a reality-television style; he’s attacked the Mueller investigation constantly and hired surrogates to take the attacks all the way to 11; he’s pursued a family-separation policy at the border that’s exactly the kind of cruelty his campaign promised and that many Republicans promised to restrain.
So is it still fair to describe Trump as a hemmed-in weakling, a Twitter terror but otherwise constrained? My answer is still a qualified yes. The president has torn through a few of the restraints that bind him, and some of the stories that Woodward’s book tells (in which Cabinet officials behave like Nixon’s Cabinet in the waning days of Watergate, doing everything possible to sideline their boss) may belong more to the era of Cohn and McMaster than Larry Kudlow and John Bolton.
But Trump is still extraordinarily weak. Some of that weakness is invisible because we simply take it for granted; it’s just part of the scenery, for instance, that this White House has no legislative agenda, no chance of advancing any policy priority on the hill, barely two years into the president’s first term.
Some of the weakness shows up in his attempts to play the tough guy. The child-separation policy, for instance, was abandoned scant days after it was publicised, because the president lacked the support within his own party and within his own White House to actually see a draconian measure through.
Some of the weakness is implicit in Trump’s attempts to reassert himself against restraints imposed by his allies or advisers. The rants against Jeff Sessions for failing to be his wingman are at once a dereliction of normal presidential duties and an admission that the Senate won’t let him replace his own Cabinet officials. The supine behaviour beside Putin was at once a national embarrassment and a reminder that Trump’s obvious desire to be pals with Russia has no discernible influence on his administration’s actual Russia policy.
And some of his weakness is presumably visible only behind the scenes and won’t be revealed until the next tell-all book, when it’s Bolton and Kudlow’s turn to leak — though we get tastes already, as in this newspaper’s recent account of how Bolton maneuverer successfully behind the scenes to shield the NATO summit’s final communiqué from his boss’s aggressive NATO scepticism.
All of this points to the case that Trump-sceptical Republican lawmakers can still offer, if pressed, in defence of their own approach to this strange presidency.
Yes, they would say, the president is erratic, dangerous, unfit and bigoted. But notwithstanding certain columnist fantasies you can’t impeach somebody for all that — or for pretending to be a dictator on Twitter, for that matter. And by the standards of any normal presidency we still have him contained.
Sure, the trade wars are bad, but every president launches at least one dumb trade war. We stopped the child migrant business, his other immigration moves are just stepped-up enforcement of the law, we’ve stepped back from the brink (however bizarrely) with the North Koreans, we’re still sanctioning the Russians.
Meanwhile he’s nominated the most establishment Republican jurist possible to the Supreme Court, and we won’t even let him fire his own attorney general, let alone Bob Mueller.
Look, we’re not enabling an American Putin here. We’re just baby-sitting the most impotent chief executive we’ll ever see, and locking in some good judges before the Democrats sweep us out.
I could continue this ventriloquisation, but instead I’ll just point to its most substantial flaw: It assumes that Trumpian weakness will never breed Trumpian desperation, and that this president will be content with his impotence even in the face of a Mueller indictment of someone in his inner circle or a Democratic House’s investigation that threatens disgrace and ruin for his family. It assumes that Trump will never, even in a desperate hour, put his party’s attempts to contain him gently to a firmer sort of test.
It’s understandable that Republicans want to make this assumption. It’s understandable that they want to manage their way through this presidency, to prod and press and redirect rather than confronting and resisting. And so far that strategy has worked out better than one might reasonably have feared.
But we still have two years and four months left of this administration. And before it ends, I suspect the harder test will come.
© 2018 New York Times News Service