Fire from friendly cor­ners

Pre­sumed al­lies re­buked Trump last week. The Take | Dan Balz,

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - THE SUN­DAY TAKE dan.balz@wash­

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.

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