White House down

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

The Trump White House is im­plod­ing. The only real thing to de­bate in that sen­tence is the tense. “Has im­ploded” is cer­tainly ar­guable. Still, as the events of the past few days have shown, im­plo­sion, in pol­i­tics as in physics, is not a mo­ment but a process. The dam­age con­tin­ues. It builds on it­self as the ed­i­fice col­lapses.

The temp­ta­tion, of course, is to be­gin with Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Di­rec­tor An­thony Scara­mucci and his pro­fane rant against soon-to-be-for­mer White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strate­gist Stephen K. Ban­non.

But the more pow­er­ful, more omi­nous ev­i­dence of im­plo­sion and its con­se­quences is found in the col­lapse of con­gres­sional ef­forts to re­peal/re­place/ do some­thing, any­thing, with the Repub­li­can Party’s chief neme­sis over the past seven years: the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Who could have imag­ined, on the day af­ter the elec­tion, or even on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day, that this would end so ig­no­min­iously?

You might be ask­ing why the Se­nate’s fail­ure to move re­peal for­ward, by a sin­gle vote in the early morn­ing hours, sig­ni­fies pres­i­den­tial weak­ness. In­deed, back in the days when Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion seemed fan­ci­ful even as the Repub­li­can Party pre­pared to award him the nom­i­na­tion, GOP law­mak­ers of­fered a sooth­ing vi­sion of a Trump pres­i­dency: They would nav­i­gate the pol­icy dif­fer­ences and po­lit­i­cal chasms and emerge with leg­is­la­tion to be duly signed by the in­ex­pe­ri­enced, com­pli­ant pres­i­dent. Health care, check. Tax re­form, check. And so on.

That it didn’t work out that way, or cer­tainly hasn’t so far, is ev­i­dence, in part, of the un­avoid­able com­plex­i­ties of health-care re­form and the ide­o­log­i­cal schisms within the party.

But it also il­lus­trates a tru­ism of mod­ern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: Mov­ing for­ward with a com­pli­cated or am­bi­tious leg­isla­tive agenda re­quires the propul­sive force of pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship. Troops do not per­form ef­fec­tively with­out a gen­eral at the helm, a leader they both re­spect and fear.

A mas­ter leg­isla­tive tac­ti­cian such as Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) can get you only so far; the rules of the Se­nate make it eas­ier for McCon­nell to block (see, for ex­am­ple, the Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion of Mer­rick Gar­land) than to en­act. A pres­i­dent dis­tracted by in­fight­ing, inat­ten­tive to de­tail and sag­ging in the polls can an­nounce all he wants that “I am sit­ting in the Oval Of­fice with a pen in hand.” No wob­bly law­maker is go­ing to rally to that cry.

While health-care re­form fiz­zled, Trump burned. First over his “weak” and “be­lea­guered” at­tor­ney gen­eral, then over the hap­less, doomed-fromthe-start Priebus. Will the pres­i­dent’s new choice for chief of staff, Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John F. Kelly, fare much bet­ter? Don’t count on it.

Daily, the pres­i­dent’s bound­less anger seems to find a new tar­get: He is var­i­ously un­happy with his lawyer/his strate­gist/his press sec­re­tary. There is al­ways some­one else for Trump to blame, never him­self.

He con­structed, en­abled, even en­cour­aged an or­ga­ni­za­tion lack­ing clear lines of author­ity and rid­den with fac­tions. “The fish stinks from the head down,” Scara­mucci told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and while he meant to at­tack Priebus, he was more on tar­get than he in­tended. As dogs have an un­canny ten­dency to re­sem­ble their own­ers, so Scara­mucci chan­nels Trump — bul­ly­ing, vul­gar, ego­tis­ti­cal and undis­ci­plined. In a week on the job, he has achieved the im­pos­si­ble: mak­ing us yearn for Sean Spicer.

Ev­ery new White House has its rocky mo­ments and per­son­nel read­just­ments, some more than oth­ers. Ev­ery White House suf­fers from fac­tion­al­ism and in­fight­ing, to some de­gree. But Wash­ing­ton and the coun­try have never seen any­thing like this. The truest — and scari­est thing — that Scara­mucci said on CNN was that “there are peo­ple in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion that think it is their job to save Amer­ica from this pres­i­dent.”

So a staff shake-up of the sort that Trump tweeted out Fri­day af­ter­noon is the or­di­nary so­lu­tion to a White House in trou­ble — but this is no or­di­nary White House prob­lem. Even if Kelly is the­o­ret­i­cally em­pow­ered in a way that Priebus never was — to have all staff re­port to him, con­trol ac­cess to the Oval Of­fice, above all to say “no” to Trump — it would be naive to ex­pect some sud­den trans­for­ma­tion in the pres­i­dent him­self.

Trump ap­pears in­ca­pable of al­low­ing his pres­i­dency to be saved, pri­mar­ily be­cause he is in­ca­pable of and un­will­ing to change. He will not al­low him­self to be gov­erned; he can­not gov­ern him­self. Per­haps things will set­tle down, but that is hard to imag­ine. The past six months feel like pro­logue to even more tur­bu­lence.

For ex­am­ple, CNN de­scribes na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster as “in­creas­ingly iso­lated” and at odds with De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, wor­ry­ing those of us calmed by the idea of an adult buf­fer against pres­i­den­tial pique. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, pub­licly un­der­cut by Trump, took time off last week, gen­er­at­ing ru­mors of a “Rexit” to come.

At this point, the re­main­ing mys­tery is how, when and how badly this dis­as­ter of a pres­i­dency will end.

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