US Politics

Presidential Checkmate?

BY David Waywell   /  1 August 2017

So, now that Scaramucci is gone and we can stop humming that infuriating song, what’s next for President Trump?

It is, I admit, a tantalizing question but attempting to predict what happens next in this most unusual of presidencies is something of a fool’s errand. There’s no way we can predict what the next turn will be; impossible to know what this most mercurial of presidents will tweet or say.

Having said that: what happens if a fool accepts this errand? What happens if we try to run a little ways down the road with our guesswork? Might we glimpse a clue about the months ahead?

Well, if we take up the challenge, we should begin by admitting that very little of what’s happening has precedent. If this were a normal presidency (remember those!?), six months would still constitute the “honeymoon period”. At this stage, we’d still be talking about a still shiny presidential agenda; new cabinet appointees implementing policies; and senators talking up plans as they begin to pass meaningful legislation. It’s only at some point after the mid-terms that presidential power usually begins to wane and talk turns to re-energising the party, restating messages, finding new inspiration, and a restatement of ideals.

This is the way that American politics ebbs and flows. It has its rhythms and a great wash of American optimism arrives with every rising tide. The first few months of an administration are when presidential power is at its greatest. This is when a president is meant to set his/her seal on the nation and begin to shape its destiny.

Except Trump, as we have learned, is no normal president. Six months in, he has achieved a few legislative rollbacks and one important appointment to the Supreme Court. He might claim these amount to “incredible progress” but, really, the former were largely symbolic and the latter a necessity that would have happened anyway. The reality is that the President is facing an existential crisis. If this were a game of chess, Trump would be facing checkmate inside five moves.

The intractability of the President’s problem is worth bearing in mind as we’re otherwise distracted – as one senses Trump is distracted – by the turnaround of personnel entering and leaving the White House. Neither the vulgarity of Scaramucci nor the newly heralded discipline of General John Kelly could solve the problem which is that Trump has left himself strategically exposed. He has done nothing to dispute the commonly held belief that he’s deeply – paranoically – unsettled by the Russian investigation. He fired James Comey believing that it would impede the investigation but the result was just a narrowing of his options. Having used a memo from Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, to eviscerate Comey, Trump effectively gave Rosenstein a reason to restate his own independence from White House rule by appointing Robert Mueller as Special Counsel overseeing the Russian probe.

This miscalculation is why the position of Jeff Sessions now consumes him. So long as Sessions is recused from the Russian probe, Trump has no influence. At the same time, he cannot be seen to fire Sessions because that would be tantamount to an admission of guilt or, at least, establishing a pattern of behaviour sure to enrage Republicans in Congress. Arguably, Trump always had one free hit – one grand gesture with which to halt the investigation – and he wasted it on Comey.
If Trump cannot get rid of Sessions then an alternative would be to move Sessions. It’s why we had those crazy few days when Trump tried to undermine his loyal Attorney General in the hope that Sessions would quit. It was as foolish as it was impotent given Session’s support with the Republican base. It was also a blunt instrument when there was always an alternative plan.

All of which brings us to the business of the past week.
The hiring of Anthony Scaramucci grabbed the headlines but also obscured, somewhat, the far more significant departure of Reince Priebus. Scaramucci was Trump’s plaything for all of a few days and like the other shiny baubles that have held this president’s attention (he has even, apparently, cooled on McMaster), it can’t really be a surprise that The Mooch was escorted from the White House grounds so quickly. The loss of Priebus, however, amounted to something more than a simple reshuffling of staff. It marked another shift in the administration away from traditional Republicanism, whilst also presenting an opportunity to bring Homeland Security head into the White House. Kelly’s move leaves a vacancy over on Nebraska Avenue into which Trump could now justifiably shuffle Sessions.

Justifiably? Well, this could make enough sense politically. Sessions is not only a loyal believer but, in many ways, a metonym for the entire Trump agenda. It is Sessions who has overseen one of the few areas where Trump’s policies are being implemented with some success. A move across to Homeland Security, it could be argued, makes better use of Session’s abilities (it doesn’t, of course, but this is all about plausible deniability) as well as puts new emphasis on the defense of the nation, which is where Trump already expends most of his rhetoric.

Of course, Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has already said that there is no space in the calendar to confirm a new AG. Using Trump’s favourite medium of Twitter, Grassley wrote: ‘Everybody in D.C. Shld b warned that the agenda for the judiciary Comm is set for rest of 2017. Judges first subcabinet 2nd / AG no way’. This doesn’t mean, however, that Trump can’t appoint a new attorney general. He can appoint what’s known as a “recess appointment” when the Senate breaks up this month. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already delayed the recess, which this year starts two weeks later, on Friday, 11th August. They will return on 5th September. This still leaves Trump with a narrow window in which he could force the issue. The question is: will he?

Again: one has to wonder if he has a choice. Moving Sessions is not without risks but this might be Trump’s last opportunity to influence the Russia narrative. One can already see how it might play out. Trump would ideally put a “heavy hitter” into the role. The name that’s been floated as a possible replacement is that of Rudy Giuliani but that raises questions about the former New York mayor’s financial dealings. Yet, perhaps that too doesn’t matter. Giuliani is the perfect fit in what becomes more obviously a White House staffed by Trump loyalists or, in the case of his ‘generals’, apolitical appointees as much motivated by duty as they are doctrine. A new AG such as Giuliani (or even, say, Senator Trey Gowdy) might bring the kind of disruptive energy that seems to delight Trump.

The appointment of Giuliani would also make sense given it would also reflect the underlying tectonics. Trump has moved aggressively to reshape his team and, in the process, change his administration’s posture towards the GOP. Priebus was always more than a seasoned political operator working in the White House to help facilitate dealings with the establishment. Before entering the Trump administration, Priebus was chairman of the RNC and his place in the White House was more about symbolism than it was about utility. He lent Trump’s presidency a degree of political authenticity it otherwise lacked. This, they could always claim, was a truly Republican administration. It still claims to be just that, of course, but the claim is looking increasingly flimsy with the apparently ascendency of Steve Bannon. Giuliani’s appointment would again signal that Trump is retreating back to his base, swapping political swagger for bullish stubbornness.

This is why “what’s next” for Trump might be about this growing gap between the White House and Republicans in Congress. His tax plans remain in limbo given his inability to repeal Obamacare. Without the latter, he cannot push forward with the former. Trump also looks increasingly reluctant to leave the matter there, with the President tweeting over the weekend: “Don’t give up Republican Senators, the World is watching: Repeal & Replace…and go to 51 votes (nuke option), get Cross State Lines & more.”

This recalcitrance is not just political. It’s habitual when cornered. Trump’s options appear to be narrowing but, also, he has lost much of his political flexibility. General Kelly might represent a tightening up of operations but he might also represent a lack of dexterity going forward. The difference between a military and a political brain is not trivial yet the President looks to be settling in, stubbornly determined to play the game on his own terms. If Plan A doesn’t work, he seems to be saying, there is no Plan B. There is only Plan A but this time harder, angrier, and loaded with threats.