President Trump has presided over a week of chaos, from the resignation of Jim Mattis to a stock market in free fall to a looming government shutdown. Intelligencer writers Josh Barro, Jonathan Chait, and Benjamin Hart tried to make sense of the madness.
Ben: Just yesterday morning, it looked like President Trump was going to grudgingly sign a short-term spending bill that would avoid a government shutdown. Then his wall-loving base erupted, and now he’s talking about preparing for a “very long” shutdown. Democrats have absolutely zero incentive to give Trump the $5 billion he wants for the wall, or the slats, or whatever he’s currently calling his pet project. Where do you see this all going?
Jon: Eventually, Trump gets bored and reopens government.
Josh: I think Trump will eventually sign a continuing resolution to reopen the government, and he’ll blame Mitch McConnell for not abolishing the Senate filibuster to send him his wall bill (not that there are necessarily even 50 votes to approve a wall by a simple majority in the Senate, but details).
Ben: There is always this assumption that shutting down the government is a disaster for the party that’s most responsible. I’m not sure if the recent examples of this phenomenon back that assumption up. How much does any of this actually matter, politically speaking?
Josh: I’m not sure that who wins the shutdown itself matters much. Republicans “lost” the shutdown in 2013, but it didn’t seem to hurt them in the election in 2014.
Ben: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
Josh: I do think there is a broader issue, which is that the president feels impotent, and he’s looking for ways to assert that he is still powerful. Shutting down the government is one way. Abruptly withdrawing from Syria is another way. He will keep coming up with them.
Ben: My worry is that he’ll become less and less powerful, and will thus lash out in more and more outlandish ways.
Jon: I think the shutdown adds another item onto a pile of dysfunction, and that’s a bad narrative for Trump. It’s not meaningless politically, but it’s a small effect.
Josh: Republicans in the Senate seem more annoyed with the president than usual. He made them come back to Washington after they went home because he told them he would sign the continuing resolution they passed that didn’t fund the wall. John Cornyn was whining about having to take an early flight to Baltimore today.
Jon: Yeah, good point. I highly doubt they impeach, but these episodes are adding to their quiet resentment, and you never know.
Josh: Trump depends on a combination of goodwill and fear from these senators, and he’s undermining the former. They’re also of course upset about more substantive matters than what flights he’s caused them to take.
Ben: McConnell and others also seemed more upset than usual about a probably more important matter: Jim Mattis’s resignation.
Josh: The fact that Democrats control the House puts Trump in a weaker position vis-à-vis the Senate. There are some things that Democrats in the House will pass that majorities in the Senate would like to do, such as restrict the president’s tariff powers. The more Trump alienates Republican senators the more he could drive them into Pelosi’s arms.
Ben: Wouldn’t that be politically toxic for them, in many cases? How many issues does this apply to?
Josh: Not that many. Mostly it applies to issues where Trump is against Republican orthodoxy, like trade and foreign policy.
Josh: They’re not going to team up with Pelosi to pass Medicare for All
But, for example, they might vote again to withdraw support for the Yemen war.
Ben: You’d think that Trump, even being Trump, might change it up a little if he feels he’s actually losing core Republican support in congress. I don’t think we’ve gotten to that point yet …
Josh: He’s concerned about his “base.” Those guys are in the House. It’ll be interesting to see if he eventually realizes House Republicans are irrelevant in the minority and what he needs to court is the Senate.
Ben: Exactly, and obviously now more than ever, given the midterm results. This shutdown does seem like a no-win for him, in that he won’t get what he wants, and will just foster resentment among his most important backers.
Josh: At least it will look like he fought. I think that’s what it is — so much of politics is performative now.
Ben: Do you think Trump will (a) blame Mitch McConnell and Democrats for not building the wall and have that be his strategy going forward or (b) pretend whatever happened IS the wall?
Ben: Yeah, I guess they’re not inconsistent.
Josh: They are inconsistent, but he’ll still say both.
Ben: I mean, in his world they’re not. In the real world they are.
Jon: Maybe a magnanimous presidential act? His Christmas Eve “present” will be to reopen the government?
Josh: He did say he would make us say “Merry Christmas” again.
Ben: With the combination of Mattis resigning, stocks tanking, and the shutdown — is the president meaningfully weaker than he was at the beginning of the month? Or will most of this stuff be usurped by the next news cycle?
Jon: It’s so hard to say. He seems to be near the floor of support of voters who get all their news from conservative sources and are impervious to failure (at least defined as failure that is transmitted via news).
Josh: I think the biggest problem is Mattis. There has been an uneasy foreign-policy peace in the Republican Party: Trump conducted a foreign policy that was more orthodox than you’d expect from his rhetoric, and foreign-policy hawks in the Senate gave him leeway to operate.
Jon: A recession would drop him below that floor, but can it get worse in the absence of one?
Josh: This has been a major reason Trump has captured the Republican Party: He has mainly given its policy constituencies what they wanted. If he decides he’s not going to do that on foreign policy anymore — and Mattis seems to have left because Trump really intends to pursue his weirdo isolationist views — that could deprive him of much of the political support he’s relied on in the Senate.
I don’t think the direct effects on public opinion from the Mattis issue are large. A recession would have large effects, but like Fed Chairman Jay Powell, I think people who are predicting one are getting ahead of themselves.