Why Congress is ignoring Trump

From health care to Russia sanctions, lawmakers are brushing off the president’s directives.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Trump adjusts his suit jacket before bestowing the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, to retired Army medic James McCloughan during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Monday, July 31, 2017. McCloughan is credited with saving the lives of members of his platoon nearly 50 years ago in the Battle of Nui Yon Hill in Vietnam.

Is President Trump evolving into a figurehead, increasingly ignored by Congress and even some members of his own executive branch of government?

Mr. Trump retains enormous direct powers – he can deploy troops, negotiate treaties, and issue executive orders. But his record is mixed at best on the larger, more complex aspects of presidential authority, which involve developing and helping to pass legislation, or lobbying the nation directly via the bully pulpit of the Oval Office.

Following the collapse of the latest attempt to repeal Obamacare in the Senate, a few administration critics have begun resorting to the “w” word – “weak.” There’s still time to turn things around for the Trump presidency, but it is already getting late, and many angry and incorrect tweets have flowed under the metaphorical bridge. A powerful and competent chief of staff, if that’s what new hire John Kelly becomes, would be a good start, says political scientist Matt Glassman.

“A fair amount of damage is done ... but Clinton ’94 is a good road map for DJT: recognize weaknesses, bring in the right people,” says Mr. Glassman in a response to a reporter’s inquiry on social media.

Trump supporters think that if the president has fallen short of his goals it is due to the animosity of establishment Washington. The failure of Obamacare repeal lies with GOP leadership, in their view. Tax reform is still to come, and the stock market is booming. Maybe the president isn't a policy wonk, but so what? That's what he has staff for. Trump is a different kind of politician, to his voters, one who threatens incumbents.

Pushback from Congress ...

But to see why some political scientists would call Trump ineffective, look at what’s happening in Congress this week. The president has railed on Twitter that Senators will be “quitters” if they don’t redouble efforts to repeal Obamacare. His budget director has said that the Senate shouldn’t vote on anything else until they vote again on health care.

Senators are apparently treating those words as empty threats. Majority leader Mitch McConnell has outlined legislative plans leading up to the August recess, and health care isn’t in them.

Then there’s the Russia sanctions bill. In a statement, Trump excoriated that legislation on Wednesday as partially unconstitutional. Yet as he did so, he signed it into law. He effectively had no choice, since it passed the House and Senate with large majorities, which could have overridden a presidential veto.

Asked Wednesday about Trump’s criticisms of the sanctions law, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, answered simply, “that’s fine.”

Pressed by a reporter on the president’s complaint that the sanctions law infringed on executive branch authority, Senator Corker, by now in an elevator, just shrugged his shoulders as the doors closed, ending the conversation.

... and from executive agencies

Nor are lawmakers the only officials in Washington contradicting the president. The same thing’s happening with the president’s own executive branch.

Last week the Department of Defense was put in an awkward position, and explained that transgender soldiers have not been banned from the military, as Trump had tweeted. Or at least, not yet – the White House still must draw up orders and the military must figure out how to carry them out before that happens.

As Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor, points out on the blog Lawfare, one of the most remarkable aspects of the entire Trump presidency has been the extent to which senior officials treat Trump as if he were not chief executive.

They regularly contradict his statements, whether it is UN Ambassador Nikki Haley saying that the US “absolutely” supports a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, to the many top security officials who have testified there is no evidence that President Barack Obama directed wiretapping of Trump in Trump Tower, as Trump charged.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has been quietly reassuring allies that Trump is not in fact rejecting NATO’s common defense, as he sometimes seems to do.

Overall, Trump is not a figurehead in the sense of being a stand-in for someone else, so much as someone who does not seem to understand the requirements of being president, says George Edwards III, a professor of presidential studies at Texas A&M University. He seems to view his job as primarily selling things, not helping develop legislation or even contributing core ideas much beyond a few key points, such as building a southern wall.

“We’ve got a very ill-informed, impulsive guy as president of the United States. He knows less about public policy than maybe any president ever,” says Professor Edwards.

He’s not weak in terms of using his hard power, such as rolling back Obama-era regulations, or deporting immigrants here illegally, according to Edwards. But he’s weak in regards to dealing with the other branches of the US government and the complex structure of powers woven by the Constitution.

“He’s weak more with Congress and the public,” says Edwards.

His job-approval polls aren’t good. The FiveThirtyEight poll aggregator has him at 37 percent approval and 57.5 percent disapproval, its worst numbers for him yet.

As Glassman notes, Trump’s presidency is far from failed – both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton suffered through difficult periods in terms of congressional interaction and public approval. But in one thing at least Trump is right: a few big wins of some sort on legislation would probably help.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed reporting from Capitol Hill.

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