Just like that, he went from “Cryin’ Chuck” to the president’s pal “Chuck,” and she went from an “incompetent” shepherd of House Democrats who has “done a terrible job” to just “Nancy.”
That’s how President Donald Trump was referring to the country’s top Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, moments after striking a not-so-grand bargain with them that funds the government and raises its borrowing limit through mid-December.
The president has made clear he has little interest in leading the Republican party – whether that means acting to defend its majorities or serving as its ideological ballast. He’s insulted the GOP’s previous presidential nominees and railed against lawmakers on whose re-election its congressional majorities depend.
Trump tends to govern more by sentiment than by substance, and he likes Schumer and Pelosi more than House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have stomached him but never done a good job disguising the fact that he makes them nauseous.
“For the Republican leadership to keep thinking Donald Trump is on their team is like Charlie Brown letting Lucy hold the football,” said Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. “Have people not been watching Donald Trump for two years?”
The president’s thinking wasn’t complicated. The administration had been pressing Congress to raise the debt ceiling for months and Republican leaders had promised to do so before the August recess, according to a senior administration official. The president was frustrated when that didn’t happen and he wanted to strike a deal, even if it outraged the leaders of his own party.
But on the substance, his interests also aligned more with Chuck’s and Nancy’s than with Mitch’s and Paul’s. Trump wanted the debt ceiling raised, he wanted money sent to recently ravaged Texas, and he wanted Republicans focused on passing his tax-reform proposal. By clearing the deck of the first two—the Senate voted 80-17 on Thursday in favor of raising the debt ceiling and sending $15 billion in hurricane relief to the Lone Star State – the president believes he’s making it easier for Republicans to get a tax bill done.
The larger question is how long Trump’s love fest with the Democrats lasts – and what the costs might be for his betrayal of his own party. In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans alike are left wondering whether Wednesday’s deal was a one-off or a signal of a longer-term strategy on the president’s part.
“I think it’s more likely that he’s going to be calling Chuck Schumer names on Twitter in the next 10 days,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “But I think there’s a chance. Maybe he sees some benefit to working with us a little bit more.”
Others said that while bipartisan deal-making would ordinarily benefit the president, Trump’s unpredictability may undermine the effectiveness of his negotiating power with his fellow Republicans. “It’s impossible to know anything,” said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “With a normal president, I’d say it’s a savvy move and a reversion to constitutional form…But that’s with a normal president. With this guy…who knows? Maybe tomorrow he’ll blow up the whole thing.”
Trump’s deal blindsided not just Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who wanted to push the debt-ceiling fight 18 months down the road, beyond the midterm elections, but also his own treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who had put a six-month counteroffer on the table. “I haven’t seen anything like it before,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of Trump’s attacks on GOP leaders and his decision to work with Democrats. “I have no way of divining his motives. I’m a pretty intelligent guy, I don’t understand.”
A senior White House aide conceded that the president’s relationship with Congress operates on a feedback loop – what happens in one conversation can affect all the others. In this case, a further erosion of trust between Trump and Republican leaders comes after the painful demise of efforts to repeal Obamacare—which many on the Hill believe the president helped undermine by calling the House bill “mean”—and just as Trump embarks on his next big legislative push.
“If this means the beginning of a turn toward more cooperation with the Democrats, it could have enormous implications, although I don’t know that the Democrats are really free to work with him and I don’t know what they would really be trying to gain substantively from working with him,” said Yuval Levin, the editor of the policy journal National Affairs.
A number of House Democrats are furious about the deal, and several of them held an emergency meeting in the Capitol late last night to vent and discuss whether to vote against the Harvey aid package. Ultimately most House Democrats are expected to vote in favor of the package, as their Senate counterparts did Thursday.
The exclamation point on Wednesday’s events was the president’s appearance in North Dakota – an event ostensibly designed to pitch his tax plan, but which turned unexpectedly into a campaign rally of sorts for Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp. The president ushered the embattled senator, who is facing reelection in 2018, onstage during his speech. “Everybody’s saying, ‘What’s she doing up here?’” Trump said. “But I’ll tell you what: Good woman.”
Heitkamp has also worked to ingratiate herself with Trump, calling Democratic resistance to the president “a waste of my time” and indicating she was eager to welcome Trump to North Dakota. An administration official said the president’s praise was merely a pressure tactic – an attempt to win Heitkamp’s support for the forthcoming tax-reform bill.
But now Trump may find he’s got to go back to courting the Republican establishment, too. “In the end the president’s going to have to work with the Republican leadership in the Congress to get his major items done,” said South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune. “There just isn’t agreement with Democrats on some of these major issues.”
The question is, at that point, whether Trump or Republican leaders will have the upper hand.
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