By now it’s been long forgotten, but the news conference last week where Donald Trump angrily defended white supremacists was supposed to be about plans to rebuild America’s decaying infrastructure.
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As is now all too well remembered, the event quickly evolved into a shouting match with the press over Charlottesville, followed by days of controversy, and the exodus of corporate leaders from two White House advisory committees.
And there you have the Trump White House laid bare: A supposedly pro-business president who can’t keep himself under control long enough to complete a brief media event intended to highlight a relatively uncontroversial initiative that would benefit the economy and has wide backing.
It’s no wonder that James Kelly, the new chief of staff brought in to put some order to the Trump White House, was standing off in the corner staring awkwardly at his shoes while his boss threw a public tantrum. Kelly may be the responsible adult, but the fact is, he reports to the Child in Chief and can’t take away his Twitter account or his mouth.
Far from acting presidential, Trump seems incapable of rising above the role of schoolyard bully. Just look at his reaction at last week’s press conference when the name of John McCain, a fellow Republican and critical vote in the Senate. Before he would answer the question, the president lit into the senator over his vote against the Obamacare repeal, even though it had nothing to do with the issue at hand.
Nor could Trump help himself from dissing the country’s most powerful business leaders in the wake of the news conference debacle. When Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck & Company, quit one of the advisory councils, Trump could have thanked him for his services and moved on, but instead insultingly tweeted, “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
When the others said they were resigning en masse, too, he beat them to the punch by dismantling the councils altogether and dropping plans for a third one on infrastructure.
Why Trump broke
Thus for no good reason at all, just lack of self-control, Trump has formally broken with American business, one of his most important constituent groups and one of the few that had stood by his side, however reluctantly, over the first few months of his administration.
And it’s a critical loss. The councils themselves were not that important – basically organized photo ops for a president who likes to be surrounded by CEOs as much as he does by billionaires and generals. But they symbolized the willingness of corporate America to hold its nose and lend support the president desperately needs for his business agenda, which apart from infrastructure, includes comprehensive tax reform, deregulation, renegotiating trade deals and cutting back on immigration.
The corporate titans on the two councils were the kind of people who would rev up the lobbying engine, make critical phone calls and give Trump plans the imprimatur of business backing they need to get through Congress. But with Trump waffling on how bad neo-Nazis and the KKK really are, he final turned himself into the kind of leader they can no longer afford to be associated with.
“I don’t see any business that’s going to want to partner with the president on an initiative,” said Leslie Dach, a strategic communications consultant in Washington, told Bloomberg News last week. “Because the chance of it bringing them grief is large and the short-term upside is slim.”
When its direct interests are at stake, corporate America will be there to defend them in Washington, but it is no longer willing to sign on to the president’s agenda en toto, which means it’s going to fall by the wayside.
Personally, I don’t think it’s a big loss. Some of the plans were wrongheaded, like the wars on trade and immigration, and would hurt the economy. Others like tax reform are neutral, with a big risk it would end up as a corporate giveaway. Others, like infrastructure, were a good idea in principle but badly conceived: Trump is determined to speed building by cutting back environmental rules and wanted the private sector to provide the lion’s share of financing.
Thus, we all may the unintentional beneficiaries of Trump’s personal failings. Rather than riding roughshod over America over the next four years, the Trump presidency seems destined to repeatedly fall off its own horse and end up nowhere. It’s unlikely Obamacare will ever be repealed, that the Iran nuclear accord will be ripped up and that the Trump immigration reform will ever see the light of day.
All that is left is to hope and pray that America and/or the world isn’t faced with a cataclysmic disaster on the order of the 2008 financial crisis or 9/11 that requires the kind of presidential leadership Trump is fundamentally incapable of providing. No White House staffer or cabinet secretary, no matter how competent and in control he is, can fill the vacuum.