Fire from friendly corners
Presumed allies rebuked Trump last week. The Take | Dan Balz,
President Trump recorded something remarkable this past week. In fewer than 72 hours, he was rebuked by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief scout executive for the Boy Scouts of America and the Suffolk County police on Long Island.
At a time when many eyes and ears in Washington are riveted on the staff shake-up at the White House and what it portends, no one should lose sight of the incoming fire that has arrived at the White House and what it says.
The words didn’t come from the hard left or the Democratic resistance. Instead, they came from people who represent communities or constituencies considered friendly to the president: the Republican Party, the military, the police, and a civic organization known for its promotion of patriotism and traditional values.
The critiques were carefully worded so as not to give too much offense to a sitting president, but they were unmistakable in their intent. In their own ways, the messages to the president carried a common theme: They asked him to stop behaving as he has been behaving.
Trump has crossed so many lines — as a candidate and as president — that the public often is numbed to what he says and does. Not this time. Perhaps that’s because each of the pushbacks dealt with a different transgression, all of them coming in the period of only a few days.
It’s far too early to know whether this marks a turning point in how people who have been at least nominally supportive of the president will approach him in the future, but Trump ought not to be dismissive of their significance. The critiques might not change the president’s behavior, but as a marker of the rising concern even from his allies, they couldn’t have been more obvious.
The first came from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the generally even-tempered chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It was in response to the president’s repeated tweets and statements brutalizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president will not forgive Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, and as Trump’s blood pressure has risen week by week, he decided to lash out.
The tweets attacking Sessions and the president’s other comments aimed at unsettling a member of his Cabinet and early supporter — “Time will tell,” Trump said when asked about the attorney general’s future — sparked fears that the president was looking to fire Sessions or force him to resign, with the obvious next step of appointing someone who in one way or another could contain or get rid of the Russia investigation now in the hands of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
In terse language, Grassley made clear that he would not consider holding confirmation hearings for a replacement any time this year. That would leave the Justice Department in the hands of Rod J. Rosenstein, the career prosecutor who is deputy attorney general and has also earned Trump’s disrespect, for appointing Mueller.
Grassley’s stamp of disapproval was an extension of the chorus of support for Sessions from his former colleagues in the Senate, particularly those in the Republican Party. They responded to the president’s public humiliation of the attorney general and the implied threat to Mueller with varying degrees of alarm. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump decides to force Sessions out and rein in Mueller’s operation.
For the most part, Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to avert their gaze whenever the president’s tweets or actions spark controversy. So there has been nothing like this so far in Trump’s presidency. Whether that’s because it involves a former member of the Capitol Hill club or because of the potential implications for a constitutional crisis if the president tries to scuttle the Mueller investigation, the response to this has been different.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was responding to a different controversy: the president’s sudden and unexpected announcement — via Twitter — that transgender individuals would be barred from military service.
Amid confusion within the ranks, Dunford issued a statement saying there would be “no modification” to current policy until the Pentagon receives an actual directive from the president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has had adequate time to evaluate it and decides how to implement it. In other words, the Pentagon will not allow the president to change policy through a tweet.
As was reported in the hours after Trump’s tweet, Pentagon officials were caught by surprise by the proposed ban. The reaction to the ban was immediate, starting with the LGBT community and transgender members of the military, and extending to Democratic and Republican lawmakers and much of the populace at large. If Trump was simply playing to the culturally conservative part of his political base, he miscalculated the overall state of public opinion — and perhaps of his own military.
The third rebuke came in two stages. It took the leaders of the Boy Scouts several days to issue a full criticism of the president’s speech at the National Jamboree. Presidents are always invited to address Scouts at the jamboree. Those who have done so in the past have stuck to obvious themes of service, civic virtue and pride in America.
Trump treated his appearance as just another raucous political rally. He was partisan, attacking Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama. Trump was offensive, talking to the young Americans about the “hottest” parties in New York and a rich friend who he said did things he couldn’t reveal to such a young audience.
No doubt unwilling to directly criticize the president, the Scout association initially issued an anodyne statement reminding everyone that the Boy Scouts are open to all ideas and generally free of politics and partisanship.
On Thursday, Michael Surbaugh, the chief Scout executive, went further, issuing a lengthy apology on the Boy Scouts website. The good works by Scouts at the jamboree, he said, had been “overshadowed by the remarks offered by the president of the United States.” Surbaugh extended “sincere apologies” to those offended and said injecting partisan politics into the event was “never our intent.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the apology at her briefing. She said she hadn’t read it. She said she was at the jamboree with the president and saw nothing inappropriate in his words. She noted as well that many of the Scouts were cheering the president, which was true. Older and more experienced members of the Scouting family knew the president crossed a line, and the reaction was swift and harsh.
The fourth disavowal of a presidential suggestion came Friday, after Trump spoke on Long Island about efforts to combat gang warfare. He offered police some advice — not to treat suspects so gingerly. He suggested that, when putting suspects into the back of a police cruiser, officers should not take precautions to protect the suspect from physical harm.
The president’s words drew a quick response from the Suffolk County Police Department that made clear that the department has strict procedures. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners,” the statement said, adding that officers who violate the procedures are treated with utmost seriousness.
The Pentagon is likely to carry out the transgender directive (assuming it arrives from the White House) once it has been reviewed and evaluated. Trump is the president and sets policy. The Boy Scouts will retreat quickly now that they have apologized to the president’s critics. They are not a combative or confrontational organization. Republican lawmakers will approach their battles with the president gingerly. They are risk averse about offending Trump’s loyalists. Local police are not looking for conflict with the president.
Still, the multiple pushbacks, on four separate issues, from the Trump-friendly side of the American electorate should be a signal to the president. But is he listening?
President Trump steps off Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews on Friday, at the end of a week in which he was for various actions rebuked by the Republican Party, the military, the police and the Boy Scouts.