Politics

Hill Frets Over Trump Pattern of Promising Big, Then Backtracking

‘In the end, it can mean absolutely nothing,’ says a Republican strategist

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrive in the Capitol on May 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Peter T. King — in true New Yorker fashion — used his hands to hammer home his point as he walked through the Cannon Tunnel. As he talked about President Donald Trump’s style, he raised one hand, pushing higher an imaginary bar.

“He’s not afraid to take on challenges. He’s not afraid to go big,” the Republican congressman said of the president. “With him, there’s the ‘art of the deal.’ It’s give. It’s take. It’s forward. It’s backward. It’s sideways. But in the end, he typically goes forward.”

King’s assessment of the businessman-turned-chief executive came just hours after Trump admitted he is not pleased with the outcome of his administration’s recent trade talks with China and as he cautioned that the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un he has promoted might not happen as planned next month.

Those Trump comments highlight how the president makes bold promises that are often derailed by a myriad of forces, some of them predictable. Democrats say they are alarmed by that penchant — and increasingly, even some Republicans are letting their discomfort show.

“I’m hearing from Republican people on and off the Hill that the president conceded to China on trade terms that he didn’t have to concede on,” said one Republican strategist who works with the party’s incumbents and congressional candidates and requested anonymity to be candid.

“Trade-wise, he’s getting nothing from China,” the strategist said. “Republicans are realizing there is a pattern of behavior from Trump: He says he’s going for the biggest possible goal, but in the end, it can mean absolutely nothing.”

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As a candidate, Trump spent his days and nights at rallies across parts of the United States railing against Beijing and what he called its unfair and predatory trade practices. China was stealing American jobs and making a “fortune” selling its cheaper goods in the country he wanted to lead. In his more bombastic moments, candidate Trump charged the Chinese government with “raping our country.”

To be sure, getting tough on China was a major plank in the Trump-Pence 2016 platform. But since taking office, the president has lauded his personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he needs to keep pressuring North Korea to produce any nuclear disarmament pact.

Trump has also assured Xi he will help save ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications firm pushed to the brink of failure due to U.S. penalties after it violated American sanctions. And he signed off on terms that ended trade talks last weekend, with Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and others joining Democrats in saying China gave up little in extracting major concessions from the Trump negotiating team.

Rubio and senior Republicans like Senate Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota are pressing the president to drop his ZTE bailout planning.

“It’s a bad idea for them to try to in any way lessen or soften the penalties … that have been levied against that company,” Thune told reporters, and then broke with the Republican president by warning that ZTE’s products — which experts say contain tools allowing the firm to spy on its customers — are not being viewed as a threat by the White House.

“It’s a national security issue,” Thune said. “I know the president and his team are looking at it like an economic issue, but it ultimately is a national security issue.”

Disruption disrupted

The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairman is not alone in his frustration with Trump’s habit of setting high policy bars that his administration has so far struggled to clear.

On the campaign trail, Trump slammed Washington for spending too much. But he has shown an appetite for ramping up government expenditures — and a willingness to hike the federal deficit. Fiscal hawks have noticed that this, too, is a promise not exactly kept.

“It takes those who hold current office” to curb annual deficits, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said earlier this month. “Particularly, there’s no podium like the president has, and that podium is vacant now on this issue. It really is.”

Michael Steel, a former senior aide to then-Speaker John A. Boehner, noted something of a paradox. He said many Republicans feel a “sense of relief” in the face of Trump’s over-promising.

That’s because “the president’s most troubling statements — on trade, for example — are often mitigated or even undercut by a lack of follow-through,” said Steel, who also advised Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. “It’s not true on every issue, but he has often seemed happy to make a bold statement and then quietly walk back the actual policy.”

That was echoed by Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who said “the hope that many people had was the president would be able to disrupt a lot of things in Washington — because people were just tired of the gridlock — and then he’d be able to create.”

“He’s been very effective at disrupting those traditions and the parts of system that people felt were inauthentic,” Grumet said. “But putting the pieces back together is the next step. … We have yet to see that done.”

Midterm calculations

Senate Democrats on Wednesday pounced on the price of gasoline, noting candidate Trump vowed to alter the United States’ relationship with oil-producing countries in the Middle East.

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer attacked the president for “palling around with” leaders of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, which has a major influence over global gas prices. Echoed by other Democrats, Schumer said “we haven’t heard a peep” on the matter from the president despite his promise on the Middle East.

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Schumer also contended any president “has the cards” on pressuring OPEC, Russia and other oil-rich states to push down prices, saying doing so would help working Americans. Many compose Trump’s base, but the Senate Democratic leader, using gas prices as an example in front of a blue sign with by-the-gallon prices well exceeding $3, charged him with offering nothing but “empty rhetoric on helping the middle class.”

Watch: Schumer Calls on Trump to Address ‘Soaring’ Gas Prices

Perhaps even more alarmingly for Trump and his top aides, some Republicans were aghast Tuesday night when the president uttered these words while addressing an anti-abortion group in Washington: “So your vote in 2018 is every bit as important as your vote in 2016 — although I’m not sure I really believe that, but you know. I don’t know who the hell wrote that line. I’m not sure.”

The Republican strategist reported “getting texts almost immediately last night, and then more this morning — it certainly got people’s attention.”

The off-the-cuff remark appeared to contradict another big Trump goal. He has vowed to hit the campaign trail hard this summer and fall for GOP congressional candidates, saying recently he is confident the party can hang on to its majorities in both chambers.

“That was absolutely the worst thing he could have said,” the GOP strategist said. “And since it’s getting a lot of coverage — and we all know he reacts to that — it could continue to be something he says publicly. And that would be very bad for us heading into the midterms.”

 

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