The title of the 2014 children’s movie starring Steve Carell has already been exploited to depict the ups and downs of Donald Trump, but this truly was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week for him. His efforts to accuse Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower blew up in his face, the Republican sponsored alternative to ObamaCare is raising howls of protests, his second effort to ban immigrants from suspect Muslim countries was once again sabotaged by a federal judge, the evidence linking his advisers to the Kremlin continued to mount and there were first indications that Republicans are starting to distance themselves from him. Small wonder that his budget proposal on Thursday was in trouble from the moment it was made public.
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The common denominator to most if not all of Trump’s travails is his big mouth, the reckless organ that brought him to the White House in the first place. Trump speaks, or often tweets, the first thing that comes into his head, as in the name of a famous spaghetti Western “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later.” Trump once said that the Bible was his favorite book, but then couldn’t cite even one favorite passage. So, one can safely assume that he missed the many warnings in Proverbs against verbally shooting from the hip. “To answer before listening is folly and shame,” the Good Book says. “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Trump’s explicit calls during the election campaign for a ban on Muslims, for example, provided ample legal grounds for Hawaii District Court Judge Derrick Watson to issue a temporary restraining order on Trump’s revised executive order blocking immigration from six Muslim countries, a few hours before it was slated to take effect. When the judge holds the Trump campaign’s official statement from December 2015 by which “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on,” it’s very hard for the Justice Department to claim that the new measure isn’t unconstitutionally aimed at members of one religion only. He who climbs by his mouth, it turns out, can crash by his mouth as well.
This is doubly true for Trump’s infamous March 4 tweets in which he repeatedly and unequivocally accused Obama of “wiretapping” Trump Tower. After several days of evasions and contortions - including Kellyanne Conway’s now immortal suggestion that microwave ovens can spy on you - Trump was forced to go into damage control mode. When I wrote “wiretapping,” he claimed, incredibly, it was in quotation marks “which really covers surveillance and many other things.” Asked in a Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson what evidence he had to accuse his predecessor of committing a felony, Trump cited the New York Times - even though he really calls it the failing New York Times, he noted, as if this was some particularly clever insult - as well as Fox host Bret Baier. “He was talking about certain very complex sets of things happening, and wiretapping,” Trump said, as if that explanation was actually self-explanatory.
“So I said, wait a minute, there’s a lot of wiretapping being talked about. I’ve been seeing a lot of things.” Trump added, “So potentially it’s a very serious situation.” Pressed on how he could use such a flimsy base to tar Obama, Trump replied, unbelievably, “We have a lot right now.” Then he added “you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”
The problem is that many Republicans don’t need two weeks and aren’t really expecting “interesting items coming to the forefront.” Most of them understand that this was another Trump caprice, another burst of a stream of consciousness that has no spigot. If anyone did listen to people on Trump Tower, they surmised, it was probably connected to investigations of interlocutors such as suspected Russian agents, for example. Asked to defend the President, most Republicans pleaded the Fifth but some went on record to say that this was already a bridge too far for them. In an extraordinary rebuke for the President, the Senate Intelligence Committee stated on Thursday night that “there were no indications” that anyone had wiretapped Trump Tower. Trump’s ally in the House of Representatives, Congressman Devin Nunes, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, had already concurred a day earlier, and even Attorney General Jeff Sessions washed his hands of Trump’s allegations. Neither he nor his Justice Department, Sessions said, had ever suggested that Trump was being “wiretapped” in any way shape or form.
The sparks of mutiny were also apparent in GOP lawmakers’ willingness to press ahead with the investigation of the allegedly illicit ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Another Trump ally, Senator Charles Grassley of the Senate Judiciary Committee, together with Senator Lindsey Graham, threatened to hold up the appointment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if FBI Director James Comey did not come to the committee to testify about the so-called Russiagate; eventually, Comey said he’d come on Monday. The fact that some Republicans are now standing shoulder to shoulder with their Democratic colleagues in pressing for the probe is another sign of the steady erosion in Trump’s stature and the growing lack of confidence in his moves.
This could have immediate ramifications for Republican efforts to ram through the so-called American Health Care Act (AHCA), which is meant to replace ObamaCare. The Republican proposal was already encountering stiff resistance from both moderates and liberals before hitting a brick wall midweek in the form of the Congressional Budget Office’s report, which predicts that 14 million Americans will lose their health insurance within the first year of AHCA, and 24 million before the end of the decade.
Republicans will face a tough slog to get the bill through the House and they aren’t even dreaming of getting it approved by the Senate without drastic modifications. At this point, they should have been able to rely on the President’s pressure and prestige to help persuade GOP holdouts, but Trump’s leverage is diminishing by the day. Even if it wasn’t, some of Trump’s advisers have urged him to keep his distance from AHCA and to let House Speaker Paul Ryan take the heat and the fallout. Trump, who has understandably insisted the law not be called “Trump-Care,” may decide to follow the behavior pattern ascribed on Thursday to Benjamin Netanyahu by Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon; “When things are tough you disappear, when there are accomplishments you suddenly appear.”
Some Republicans are starting to fear the backlash from the fact that the AHCA may hit low and middle income Trump voters more than others. Republican lawmakers have encountered a growing groundswell of public outrage in recent months at their attempts to repeal ObamaCare, which gets more and more popular the more public opinion is exposed to the proposed alternative. Some Republicans are already talking about a historic defeat in the 2018 elections along the same lines of the Tea Party surge in the 2010 elections that enabled the GOP to take over the House of Representatives.
In some ways, Republicans are now reaping the whirlwind of the ill winds they sowed. They are the ones who maintained a scorched earth policy throughout most of Obama’s two terms in office, instilling a legacy of absolute and undiscerning rejection of anything the previous administration had to offer. Now they are the victims of the same kind of automatic criticism and repudiation, much of it coming from their own constituencies, amplified a thousand times over by social media. The same phenomena could very well make it that much harder for the White House to secure support for its new budget proposal, made public on Thursday.
The guiding principle of the proposed budget, unsurprisingly, is Trump’s mouth and the words that came out of it throughout the election campaign. Mick Mulvaney, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said explicitly that Trump’s pledges and campaign promises were all translated into specific line items in the new budget. The outcome is a radical and even revolutionary budget, which to Israeli ears sounds like Netanyahu’s dreams come true. The budget decimates and in some cases obliterates all the bodies and services that liberals hold most dear, including public broadcasting, federal support for arts and humanities, environment protection, foreign aid, support for international humanitarian bodies and even the U.S. foreign service itself, which, as in Israel, is despised by the hard right.
It isn’t a conservative budget, however, because it does nothing to lower the deficit and makes significant reduction in taxes nearly impossible, but a populist and nationalistic proposal, inspired by the “American First” ideology of Trump’s strategic adviser, Steve Bannon. It dramatically expands the military, homeland security and border control, boosts support for army veterans and even finances the first phase of Trump’s wall with Mexico, which Trump promised the Mexicans would pay for. So he said.
To fund all of these dramatic increases in national security budgets, it isn’t enough to destroy cherished liberal institutions. As in the new health care law, it is Trump’s supporters, in poorer states and less developed rural areas, who are likely to suffer the most from some of the cutbacks in federal spending. Graham, who is opposed to the proposed cuts to foreign aid and to America’s diplomatic corps, claims that the new budget is dead on arrival. Democrats savaged Trump’s plans, naturally, but Republicans, who are growing increasingly wary of their President, were unusually restrained if not outright hostile.
The White House is well aware that it will need to bargain and compromise in order to get the budget approved, but Trump’s advisers cannot foretell what damage his uncontrollable mouth will wreak next and what political price they’ll have to pay for it. Against this backdrop, Trump’s relative restraint on the Israeli-Palestinian front is all the more extraordinary. He is no longer promising to tear up the Iran nuclear deal or to transfer the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, concentrating more and more on his wish to secure a peace deal. Meanwhile his emissary, Jason Greenblatt, has just completed four days of talks in the region in which he exhibited the same tact and discretion as more accomplished and experienced career diplomats. If I was an Israeli right winger and settlement supporter, I would be worried about Trump’s peculiar verbal discipline and would start praying for some wild Presidential proclamation that will astonish and shock everyone, proving that it’s still the same old Trump that we once thought would bring the Jewish settlement movement salvation and redemption.