LA MALBAIE, Quebec — The choice to spend the long Fourth of July weekend gazing across the broad St. Lawrence River was based entirely on beauty and food. It was not a political decision, so I will spare you any transnational mooning over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Still, there is something intoxicating about being in a spot where the word Trump was not overheard for three days in any conversation whether in French or English. If nothing else, it should offer a tiny bit of perspective on an in-your-face presidency whose Twitter tantrums upend any attempt at dispassionate analysis.
In baseball, the Fourth of July represents the midpoint of the season when teams gauge whether they are in the pennant race or mired in another “wait until next year” slump. In similar fashion, the first Independence Day of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House (and at his personal golf resorts) seems an apt time to consider the unexpected aspects of the nation’s first reality-show host president.
No one — with any sense of Trump’s vicious temperament and non-reflective mind — should have expected him to grow in office or undergo a personality change in his eighth decade. But what could not have been so easily predicted from the campaign is the blithering incompetence of the Trump presidency.
Begin with the stormy 24 days of Michael Flynn’s tenure as national security adviser, the most influential post in government not subject to Senate confirmation. Five months later, it remains jaw-dropping that Flynn lied to the vice president, did not fully reveal his foreign lobbying ties during the Trump campaign and stayed on in his job even after the White House was warned that he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Equally self-destructive was Trump’s initial executive order banning people from seven overwhelmingly Muslim nations. Incompetently drafted and cruelly enforced at international airports, the attempted Muslim ban did more to galvanize united Democratic opposition to the Trump presidency than any other early act.
The recent action by the Supreme Court to temporarily reinstate parts of the watered-down revised executive order does little to vindicate Trump’s initial attempt at decisiveness. The imagery of relatives with valid visas being turned back at airports is an indelible part of the Trump legacy.
But nothing — not even entrusting Flynn with national secrets — tops the foolhardy decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. Even the inevitable sycophantic memoirs of the Trump presidency (such as Sean Spicer’s eagerly anticipated “I Don’t Even Look Like Melissa McCarthy”) will have a hard time identifying the strategic genius embedded in this self-inflicted crisis.
Even bitter critics initially assumed that Trump’s deal-making skills might help him advance his legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. But in the modern annals of the White House (including the Bill and Hillary Clinton 1994 health care debacle), nothing can top Trump’s uncanny ability to sabotage GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Begin with Trump’s bizarre decision to hold a mock White House signing ceremony after the House passed its Grinch-like health care bill. Then Trump betrayed every Republican who cast a tough vote out of party loyalty by calling the House bill “mean.” And just last week, as Mitch McConnell was scrambling to salvage a Senate bill, Trump helpfully tweeted that Congress should change strategy to repeal first and then replace at some mythical future date.
Another aspect of the Trump presidency that seems baffling after nearly six months in office is the lack of apparent White House interest in rehabilitating America’s crumbling infrastructure. Unleashing Trump the Builder would seem to have been the logical extension of all those red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.
Wins and losses
Part of the problem for Trump is that large aspects of the Republican Party have no interest in a massive spending program — even if Americans were forced to commute to work by crossing rivers in birch-bark canoes. Similar GOP ideological divisions explain the lack of any projected Trump legislation on such hot-button issues as immigration and trade.
Neil Gorsuch aside, Trump’s biggest policy successes have come in areas such as withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement where Obama had ruled by executive action. At the EPA, Scott Pruitt is demonstrating that enacting environmental policy through administrative rules can prove as perishable as writing on the sand as high tide approaches.
Trump’s guttersnipe attacks on the press should not have surprised anyone who watched him mock a disabled New York Times reporter on the campaign trail.
But there is a sense of relief that Trump is going after Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezinski on Twitter rather than, say, Angela Merkel. It is easy to imagine a Trump tweet threatening the German chancellor: “Hey, Angela, remember I have nuclear weapons and you don’t. You better hope I don’t have tapes of our conversations. Beware.”
America has been lucky so far (knock wood) that the world has not presented Trump with an unexpected international crisis. North Korea’s nuclear posturing represents a serious and knotty problem, but it is one that has been festering for years.
Nothing about Trump so far should give anyone — Democrat or Republican — confidence that the president will provide calm, statesmanlike leadership when confronted with a sudden threat.
The hotel that I staying in as I write these words (Le Manoir Richelieu) will be the site of next year’s G-7 Summit. All I can say, as I walk the corridors of a hotel that will soon house world leaders, is that it is impossible to detect any signs of the world’s sudden new respect for Donald Trump’s America.
— Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.