‘Your worst nightmare: a successful Donald Trump presidency’
Sergeant Michael Verardo, who lost an arm and a leg while serving with the US army in Afghanistan in 2010, says he was failed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He had to wait 57 days to get his prosthetic leg fixed and three and a half years for adaptations to his home. But then came Donald Trump.
“Thank you, President Trump and [Veterans Affairs] Secretary [David] Shulkin for ensuring that we are not forgotten and that we will receive the care we need and deserve,” Verardo said at the White House recently.
Trump, signing an act to protect VA whistleblowers, revelled in the moment, using his fingers to mime a gun and mouthing his catchphrase “You’re fired!” at Shulkin. Then he smiled: “We will never use those words on you, that’s for sure.”
The audience in the East Room laughed dutifully. This is the parallel universe that Trump occupies whenever he can, a universe of achievements, applause and adoration, a safe space where he is monarch of all he surveys and his punchlines land. In his version of Washington, he is the Henry V-style man of action to Barack Obama’s indecisive, cripplingly intellectual Hamlet.
Trump’s self-belief appears to get a shot in the arm from every victory, real or imagined. This may go some way to explaining why, even as his approval ratings fall off a cliff and some call for his impeachment, he sees no reason to course correct, as he and a noisy caucus around him seem to become ever more self-righteous.
Trump is “much more resilient” than his opponents allow, said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, before pivoting to a plug for his new book, Understanding Trump.
The past two weeks illustrate how, when on the ropes, Trump can still throw some punches that at least get him to the bell. And he makes sure his 33m Twitter followers know about it. When Republican Karen Handel beat Democrat Jon Ossoff in a Georgia race much-hyped as a referendum on his presidency, Trump tweeted: “Thank you @FoxNews ‘Huge win for President Trump and GOP in Georgia Congressional Special Election.’”
Then the president headed to Iowa to bask in the adulation of his supporters in the forum he likes best, a campaign-style rally. When he ranted against the “dishonest media” and floated the idea of solar panels on his border wall, the crowd lapped it up. Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, commented: “You know what was really impressive to see last night? How Trump supporters are so onboard with their dude he can say anything and they’ll come along for the ride.”
Then came the veterans event at the White House where, under the gaze of portraits of George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, Trump projected himself as a man who gets things done.
“We’ve announced that the VA will finally solve a problem that has plagued our government for decades,” he said, referring to the transfer of veterans’ medical records from the Department of Defense to the VA – a seemingly simple process that has earned comparisons to the incompatibility of the Xbox and PlayStation.
Meanwhile Trump finally caught a break on the worst crisis facing his presidency, the multiple investigations into his election campaign’s links to Russia. First, David Brooks, a Trump critic and New York Times columnist, suggested that the scandal may be overblown.
“There may be a giant revelation still to come,” Brooks wrote. “But as the Trump-Russia story has evolved, it is striking how little evidence there is that any underlying crime occurred – that there was any actual collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russians. Everything seems to be leaking out of this administration, but so far the leaks about actual collusion are meagre.”
Then, the Washington Post published a major investigation that raised questions over whether Obama could have done more to stop Moscow’s interference in last year’s poll, quoting one former administration official as saying: “I feel like we sort of choked.”
That gave Trump the opening he needed, to deflect and disrupt the prevailing narrative.
“The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling,” he tweeted. “With 4 months looking at Russia… under a magnifying glass, they have zero ‘tapes’ of T people colluding. There is no collusion & no obstruction. I should be given apology!”
He was handed another gift when CNN was forced to retract a report, citing a single anonymous source, that Congress was investigating a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials”. It changed nothing about the Russia-related cloud over Trump but it did feed into his narrative that untrustworthy media organisations are conspiring against him.
The president gloated: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!”
Reporter challenges White House spokeswoman over fake news claims
Politico reported that Trump and his allies “believe he’s gained a tactical advantage in his war with the media” – which intensified over the weekend – adding that many White House staff members were “elated” by the CNN blunder, reckoning it will prove to sceptical voters that the mainstream media has a “vendetta” against the administration. The president’s supporters seized on the incident to plant seeds of confusion and false equivalency: if that Russia story was wrong, perhaps all of them are wrong?
Yet another lifeline was thrown to Trump from an unexpected quarter. The supreme court partially restored his executive order imposing a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries and said it would hear arguments in the autumn. After setbacks in lower courts, the president was quick to crow about a “clear victory”.
‘A success in spite of himself scenario’
Trump’s parallel universe also consists of speeches, bill signings, Oval Office photo ops and meetings with foreign leaders with whom he has, of late, stopped taking questions from the media, preferring to be lavished with praise that often jars with the national conversation. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, for example, thanked Trump for “having spent so much time with me, for having spoken such kind words about me and my country … In this journey of India-America relations, I think I would like to thank you for providing great leadership.”
None of these examples comes without caveats. Handel’s victory in Georgia was in a seat that Republicans have held since 1979. Democrats say Trump’s proposed budget will make it harder for veterans to receive care. The Russia investigations are likely to drag on for years and could find that Trump obstructed justice when he fired FBI director James Comey. The supreme court did not fully reinstate his travel ban, granting exemption to people with a “bona fide relationship” with someone in the US. And his campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare remains in limbo on Capitol Hill, while the president has been condemned by both parties for a crude attack on TV host Mika Brzezinski.
But politics, after all, is often a battle of perceptions. Niall Ferguson, a British historian and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, said in May: “I think one of the things Guardian readers, and their counterparts on the American coasts, don’t want to think about is the possibility that despite his obvious ineptitude, Trump might actually be successful.
“I said last summer to a bunch of liberal friends, ‘Your worst nightmare is not a Trump presidency; it’s a successful Trump presidency.’ The successful Trump presidency scenario is one in which, despite it all, the economy does better thanks to deregulation and tax cuts, foreign policy delivers some big wins on North Korea, the Middle East.
“It doesn’t take an awful lot for a president to start looking good. If the expectations start really low, which they have done, it may be one win, and I definitely don’t rule out a kind of ‘success in spite of himself’ scenario. And then you begin to wonder if a left-of-Clinton Democrat in 2020 would be blown away. We’ll see. The fun thing about doing history is you really can’t tell at this point which way it will go. It could quite easily go Jimmy Carter and he could be a lame duck.”
The president has not given a solo press conference since 16 February. Since 11 May, he has not given a TV interview to a channel other than the staunchly supportive Fox News. Combined with increasingly terse White House press briefings, often off camera, the pattern suggests that Trump is focused on firing up his base and has all but given up on reaching beyond it.
Michael Barnett, chairman of the Republican party in Palm Beach County, Florida, said: “I haven’t seen Trump lose any bit of support on the ground here. I hear people say he’s not presidential but it looks like he is beginning to redefine what it means to be presidential. He’s not going to take it lying down but he’s going stand up for himself and give it back.”
He added: “We believe, just as President Clinton said, it’s all about the economy. That’s what people care about most, not Russia or climate change, but things that affect them personally like putting food on the table. If Trump focuses on that, he’ll win again in 2020.”
‘Most Americans see this as a failure of a president’
Trump’s string of wins – as he sees them – has emboldened him. This week, at his luxury hotel in Washington, he hosted his first re-election campaign fundraiser.
Stephen Colbert: Trump isn’t a symptom, he’s the disease – video
George Ajjan, a Republican consultant and strategist, said: “The early political burials of Trump and impeachment whispers were wishful thinking. Remember we are not even six months into his presidency – the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and most of the bowl is still untasted. The fixation of Trump’s enemies on Russia is not strategic: they are wasting their time hoping for a silver bullet made in Moscow.”
But from vulgar tweets to healthcare, Trump remains highly combustible. As the healthcare legislation continues to falter, his reputation as a dealmaker is on the line. Last week, Senate Republicans postponed a vote as they argued over the way forward. Some complained that the president lacks a grasp of the basic issues. House Republicans are also reportedly furious that he branded their bill “mean”.
Failure to repeal and replace Obamacare would no doubt be a colossal failure, but the alternative might be worse. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate plan would leave 22m more people uninsured and gut Medicaid, breaking Trump’s promise to protect it. His hardcore supporters, in state such as West Virginia, would be hardest hit. If no legislation is passed, Trump and his allies will have the option of trying to muddy the waters by blaming the intransigence and dysfunction of Washington. The message will be: “Look, I tried, but the politicians got in the way.”
Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and pollster, counselled patience: “With Donald Trump, every news cycle is a lifetime. Never assume he’s dead, because he always rises from the ashes of some political or personal error. And never assume he’s safe, because the next political explosion is no more than days away.”
Trump’s approval rating hovers at an average of 40%. John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, warned: “His supporters [see] someone they see as presidential; the problem is that most Americans don’t.
“Most Americans see this as a failure of a president and don’t agree with handling of the economy or his handling of foreign policy.”
Hudak added: “No one is supporting Trump because three people at CNN resigned. This love fest over Republicans winning Republican House seats is worrying. Trump needs to expand his base: he will not be re-elected if he relies on the same coalition. He won by the narrowest of margins and replication is not a viable strategy. A lot of polling data shows the Trump base is an ever shrinking segment of the American population.”
On Friday, there was another little noticed celebration in the Oval Office, as Trump signed an executive order reviving the National Space Council. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, quipped: “Infinity and beyond.”
Perhaps not aware of the reference to Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear, Trump replied: “This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We don’t really don’t know. But it could be. It has to be something – but it could be infinity, right?”