Washington Watch: Trump’s secret weapon

One thing that makes Trump dangerous to Republicans is that he has little if any sense of party loyalty.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump is flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Defense Secretary James Mattis at the White House (photo credit: REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump is flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Defense Secretary James Mattis at the White House
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If anyone ever doubted that US President Donald Trump is a sore loser, they do so no longer. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” If Trump had one it would say “Pass the Buck.”
Never has that been clearer than following the humiliating failure of his effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.
After last week’s dramatic failure of the Republicans to fulfill their top campaign promise by repealing the signature legislation of the Obama era, Trump’s first action was to blame the Democrats for their unanimous opposition even though they’d been locked out of the process. Then he made an abrupt U-Turn, attacking the party’s far Right, the Freedom Caucus, Heritage Foundation and Club For Growth.
They “saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!,” tweeted the wounded president. Even top White House staff came under fire from their responsibility-averse boss.
In typical Trump fashion, he and aides were privately blaming House Speaker Paul Ryan for the defeat while publicly saying just the opposite.
The GOP resembles a circular firing squad, shooting bullets of blame in all directions, with no one firing more shots than the master deal maker who turned out to be an apprentice with a big mouth.
However incompetent the new president has been in pursuing his top political goal, he is apparently much better at pursuing grudges; there are credible reports that the White House is compiling enemies lists that rival Richard Nixon’s.
Trump told Rep. Mark Meadows, head of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, “I’m going to come after you, but I know I won’t have to because I know you’ll vote ‘yes,’” reported The Washington Post.
Trump later threatened Freedom Caucus members that he might bypass them on tax reform legislation.
Rep. Charlie Dent, a leading GOP moderate who also opposed the bill, did not deny when asked about reports that Trump told him “I’m going to blame you” if the bill fails.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Republicans opposing the bill will “probably pay a price at home.” It wasn’t a threat, the volatile spokesman later said, just “a political reality.”
Threats by a sitting president in pursuit of legislative goals are nothing new, but Trump will be breaking new ground if he follows through by campaigning against members of his own party in their primaries – something the vengeful chief executive could well do.
The only one who ever tried it was FDR in 1938, and he failed dismally.
Most of those who opposed Trump come from very conservative congressional districts that are solidly Republican. If Trump plans to go after them, as he’s threatened, it would have to be by recruiting and backing challengers in GOP primaries.
If Trump goes that route, he will have tools FDR lacked, including 24/7 cable news skewed to the GOP extremes, Twitter’s vast audiences, his ability to jet in and out of districts to raise money and to rally voters for his hand-picked candidates.
Trump’s threat is unprecedented, said a retired Hill staffer. “I think the reaction of members tells you everything you need to know. He seems to think that you can talk to members of Congress the same way you talk to plumbers from the Bronx you are about to stiff.”
GOP lawmakers are not likely to forget Trump’s threats; he’s going to need their votes in future battles, but he is giving them less and less motivation to be loyal. “This is likely to embolden members who decide they will want to or need to cross him in the future,” said the Hill veteran.
One thing that makes Trump dangerous to Republicans is that he has little if any sense of party loyalty.
Thus he’d have no qualms about plunging into primaries.
After walking away from the health care bill he said, “we learned a lot about loyalty.” Loyalty to whom or what? Does he understand that loyalty is a two-way street? Trump’s flexibility in the content of the legislation showed he really wasn’t as concerned about the substance of the bill as he was about claiming bragging rights for fulfilling a campaign promise.
He began preparing to run for a second term even before the first one began, and he has been raising money for 2020. He has been jetting around the country holding campaign-style rallies of loyalists.
Federal records show he raised more than $7 million before he’d been in office 10 days.
Relying on sheer force of personality may not work that well on the Hill, but it has proven very effective for Trump on the campaign trail. Those rallies energize him and his audiences, and should worry Republican leaders who fear – at least privately – where he is leading their party.
Those events are not aimed at expanding his base so much as reinforcing it, and they’re primary voters and activists. That makes them extremely valuable in primary fights.
Trump likes to remind Republican lawmakers of his vote margins in their districts and states last November.
It’s a form of intimidation, letting them know of his popularity on their turf and a veiled threat to campaign against them in primaries.
All of this suggests a president who could soon find himself at war with his own party. Whether that provides an opening for a shift in the direction of moderation or a spur to even greater extremism in the GOP remains to be seen. One thing is certain: the GOP fraternal head bashing could be good news for a dispirited, disorganized Democratic party as it seeks to recover from the disaster of 2016.