Trump’s shutdown: The latest on his list of failures

Clouds are reflected in the U.S. Capitol reflecting pool at daybreak in Washington D.C.

Clouds are reflected in the U.S. Capitol reflecting pool at daybreak in Washington as Day Three of the government shutdown continues, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

On the eve of the 2013 government shutdown, a cable TV pundit opined: “Who is going to take the blame? Who is going to bear the brunt of responsibility? It always has to be the top. Problems start from the top and they have to get solved from the top and the president is the leader and he’s got to get everybody in a room and he’s got to lead.”

So said beauty pageant magnate Donald Trump.

Problems start from the top … How prescient he was! The government crashed this weekend precisely because the toxic problem-in-chief, the self-avowed magician (“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it”), the purported deal-making genius (“I’m a closer. We’re gonna win, win, win”), screwed up bigly — yet again. Trump Government now joins Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump Casinos, Trump Magazine, Trump University, and Trump Airlines on his long life list of failures.

Even if Congress soon does a workaround and manages (with his signature) to restart the government, two records have already been broken: Earliest shutdown ever in a presidency, and the first shutdown in the history of single-party governance — with a Republican president and Republicans controlling both congressional chambers. We know how Trump loves superlatives about himself; those two, at least, are indelibly true.

Some closer he is. As I’ve surely said before, this guy couldn’t close a window if you showed him the latch.

When one party controls the White House and Congress, it’s natural for lawmakers to look to their presidential leader for policy direction. But repeatedly this month, Trump signaled tentative agreement on a bipartisan deal to save the immigrant “dreamers”  in exchange for enough Senate Democratic votes to keep the government operating — only to blow things up when the white nationalists (most notably, Stephen Miller) bent his ear. Since he’s basically a hollow shell with no feel for policy and no instinct for compromise (traits that have been evident since day one of his campaign), he gets spun like a top by whoever is the last to yank his string.

“Problems start from the top” indeed. At this point, many Republicans don’t even bother to conceal their disdain.

Over the weekend, a senior GOP aide told the conservative Weekly Standard magazine: “Like one of his buildings, this shutdown will have Trump written all over it.” Trump’s own people are dishing behind his back again, as they did with Michael Wolff; today The Washington Post reports: “Privately, some of his closest aides admit the president is an erratic deal maker who can unexpectedly overturn negotiations like a flimsy coffee table.” Elsewhere, Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, said: “This is what happens when you have a president who is not clear and consistent on what he will accept.” And Senate leader Mitch McConnell, Trump’s beleaguered accomplice, said this about Trump: “As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels.” That sounds mild, but, coming from McConnell, that’s the rhetorical equivalent of ballistic.

Trump is way over his head on the basics of governance; he prefers to get down in the mud. That, at least, is something he knows how to do. On Saturday, he tweeted that Senate Democrats have shuttered the government “over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration,” whereas, here in the factual world, Democrats are merely seeking agreement to save the undocumented immigrants who came here as kids, and who, in many cases, are working and paying taxes.

Because he has the biggest megaphone, he apparently thinks he can sway public opinion. But that’s a tall order for a guy with 36 percent job approval (the lowest of any president at the one-year mark), a guy viewed by 70 percent of Americans as unpresidential (yup, 70 percent), a guy viewed by 47 percent of Americans as mentally unstable (among women, it’s worse — 55 percent think he’s nuts).

He’s so out to lunch that the Republican Senate has urged him to steer clear of the latest negotiations. Remember Trump’s line, in 2013, about how a president has “got to get everybody in the room and he’s got to lead”? Today’s Republicans don’t even want him in the room. They met all day yesterday, groping for a deal that would put the lights back on, and Jeff Flake, the lame duck Republican who thus feels free to state the obvious about Trump, said: “I don’t think it’s helpful for him to be involved right now.”

Presumably we’ll emerge from this mess with something Trump can sign and try to spin as a personal win. But, for the umpteenth time, his manifest weakness has already been exposed. Let us remember what the sage said on Fox News, in the aftermath of the 2013 shutdown, insisting that the buck always stops in the Oval Office:

“Whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible.”

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