OPINION — In this time of tumult, political truths are being knocked off their pedestals faster than Confederate statues. But even now, it seems ludicrously self-evident that a president wants to elect a Congress of his own party.
Donald Trump, however, is a president who marches to a different brass band. Consider what he has done in just the last week.
Tuesday morning, the president unleashed a bitter Twitter attack on the “globalist Koch Brothers,” excoriating as “overrated” the network of conservative donors who have been the bulwark of congressional GOP funding in the super PAC era.
Trump’s Treasury Department is working on a legally dubious backdoor maneuver that would slash capital gains taxes for the wealthy without going to Congress for legislation. If Treasury goes forward, it would hand the Democrats a potent issue for November.
Over the weekend, Trump played Rumpelstiltskin, stomping his feet and threatening to shut down the government if Congress does not provide ample funding for his cherished border wall. A pre-election shutdown would make voters question GOP competence since the Republicans control all the levers of government.
Trump told Sean Hannity last week that, starting in September, he would stump six days a week for GOP incumbents, whether they wanted him or not. Even though Trump’s approval rating is below 40 percent in many battleground states, the president boasted, “We’re going to bring them over the [finish] line.”
Meanwhile, Midwestern factories are closing and prices for sodas in aluminum cans are rising because of Trump’s determination to launch a trade war in an election year. And, of course, every deranged Trump tweet screaming “NO COLLUSION” reminds voters of the fat Russian finger on the scales during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Are we detecting a pattern here?
Seeing red, going blue?
While delving into Trump’s psyche is a risky maneuver that should only be attempted while wearing a HAZMAT suit, a plausible case can be made that the president is subconsciously rooting for a Democratic Congress in 2019. In fact, given Trump’s contempt for political norms, there is a glimmer of a chance that he might be deliberately trying to wreck the GOP’s chances.
The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, a place whose outlook rarely overlaps with mine, made a related case on Tuesday in an offering entitled “Trump’s Lose-the-House Strategy.” Focusing on the threatened government shutdown, the Journal blames the baleful influence of Steve Bannon and his obsession with wedge issues like immigration that motivate the Trump base.
But suggesting that the president is still under the sway of Bannon and his ultra-nationalist views is a way of letting Trump himself off the hook. It is akin to 19th-century Russian peasants saying after the Cossacks pillaged their village, “If the tsar only knew.”
Other presidents have been defined by their quest for accomplishments. But Trump (who has already bested Lincoln’s greatness in his own mind) is far more obsessed with blaming everything on his enemies.
The president must find it frustrating that his nemesis “Crooked Hillary” has been out of government for more than five years. And 18 months after the inauguration, Trump’s fine whines about Barack Obama are becoming tedious even to his supporters.
McConnell, Schumer Agree: They’re Eager to Avoid a Government Shutdown
But a Democratic House and Senate would allow Trump to blame everything from North Korean nukes to Chinese tariffs on Congress. In Trump’s telling, if a dinner steak at the White House in 2019 were served medium rare instead of well done, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer would somehow be responsible.
Control of Congress would, of course, give the Democrats subpoena power to probe the misdeeds, the self-dealings and smarmy financial arrangements that come with the Trumpian approach to government.
But the president and his family would be mostly off-limits. Since White House staffers are normally protected by executive privilege, a Democratic Congress would probably be stymied in any effort to learn precisely how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump made a minimum of $83 million in income and capital gains last year.
That’s why the continuing threat to Trump himself comes from the Robert Mueller investigation rather than from a Democratic takeover of Congress. As a result, if Trump ever gets the irresistible urge to bring on a constitutional crisis by firing Mueller, the president is unlikely to be deterred by fears of hurting Republican chances in November.
But no casting couch ...
Since Trump seemingly judges his presidency by the arc of reality television, a Democratic Congress would bring on a new cast of characters for the coming season. Paul Ryan has already announced his departure from the Trump Show and the tight-lipped Mitch McConnell never offered much star power. In contrast, Pelosi and Schumer come across as veteran character actors who can play villains or comic foils to Trump’s greatness.
As for endangered GOP congressional incumbents, they should rightly quake over imagining Trump’s next move in an impulsive season of sabotage. Every Trump tweet, every threat to Iran, every outrageous presidential lie serves to distract the voters from the benefits of the booming economy.
In a sense, the Faustian bargain is coming due for Republicans who embraced Trump out of a misplaced survival instinct.
It isn’t only that Trump has defied conservative ideology on issues like trade and immigration. No, the real threat to the GOP’s Capitol Hill majorities comes from a president who cares about nothing beyond himself and his chorus of sycophants on Fox News.
Any Republican incumbent who naively thought that loyalty to Trump would be reciprocated by a grateful president just has not been paying attention to the character of the man their party installed in the Oval Office.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.