- By Charles KupchanCharles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.
Donald Trump had better use his summer vacation to reboot his presidency. Although erratic and errant from the start, he was until recently able to muster at least the appearance of running the country. Uneasy compliance from the Republican-controlled Congress enabled a White House in turmoil to lurch from one day to the next.
But the Trump presidency appears to have reached a turning point. Mounting pushback from the Republican establishment, vicious blood-letting in the West Wing, the growing alienation of key Trump advisers, and the ongoing churn of the Russia investigations have brought Trump to a new low and made him look like a lame duck president only six months into his term.
Trump will surely respond to his political isolation by fighting back and ramping up his populist appeals. And Republican office-holders, keen to maintain the support of Trump’s base, will more often than not play along. But Republicans on Capitol Hill do finally seem to be awakening to the reality that hemming in their president is a vital national priority. A fed-up House and Senate offer the best hope of shrinking this president and curbing his power.
Since Trump took office, most Republicans have been distressingly supine in dealing with a president with whom they are at ideological odds and who many realize is singularly unfit for the job. Party loyalty has been carrying the day. But the tide does seem to be turning.
The House and Senate by overwhelming margins have imposed on the White House legislation that not only hits Russia, Iran, and North Korea with new economic sanctions, but also stipulates that Trump can lift sanctions against Russia only with the consent of Congress. For a president bent on improving relations with Moscow, this move represents a stunning rebuke from his own party, making clear that even Republicans do not trust Trump when it comes to dealing with the Kremlin.
In similar fashion, Republicans in Congress have effectively given up on one of Trump’s signature goals — to repeal and replace Obamacare. The Republicans made repeated runs at the issue and all of them fell short. They are now reaching across the aisle to figure out a way forward. The failure of the Republican-controlled Congress to pass even a watered-down healthcare bill constitutes a major defeat for Trump and a clear indication of his weakening authority.
In another sign that Republicans are finally finding a little spine, Trump’s withering verbal attacks against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation have prompted a veritable revolt among Sessions’s former colleagues in the Senate. Republicans have effectively told Trump to back off and leave the attorney general alone, indicating that they would seek to block Trump’s appointment of a replacement if he sacks Sessions. It is not every day that Senate Republicans join arms to dress down a president from their own party.
On the personnel front, daily life in the Trump administration has taken on the air of a bad reality TV show; the infighting has become debilitating and destructive. The arrival of a foul-mouthed communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, prompted the departure of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Preibus, and his press secretary, Sean Spicer. A few days later, Scaramucci was sacked by the new chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.
Kelly has moved quickly to assert his authority in an attempt to restore a measure of order to the West Wing. But Trump’s own impulsive and disruptive ways will stand in Kelly’s way. Moreover, it is by no means clear that Kelly, even with his impressive administrative skills, has the political experience to manage the White House’s eroding relationship with Capitol Hill.
Amid such chaos, it is only a matter of time before some of the best members of Trump’s team head for the exit. The national security advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster, is one of more sensible figures in the West Wing and has steadied the National Security Council — in part by firing some of the ideological extremists on its staff. But he is not meshing well with Trump; the two are miles apart on core issues, including Afghanistan and climate change, and McMaster was excluded from Trump’s recent meeting with Putin in Hamburg. McMaster may not be able to take much more.
The same goes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He continues to struggle to find issues he can own, pushed aside by the dueling egos in the West Wing. Tillerson seems to have initially been charged with overseeing Russia policy, but the new sanctions legislation means that Congress is effectively taking over that portfolio. Rumors of Tillerson’s potential resignation are rife.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis is in a more secure position than McMaster and Tillerson; with Trump having devolved considerable operational authority to the military, Mattis runs his own fiefdom. But the Pentagon was blindsided by Trump’s recent decision to ban transgender people from military service, making clear that no one is immune from the president’s whim. And looking ahead, Mattis, a seasoned professional, may well tire quickly of the ineptitude in the White House and Trump’s floundering foreign policy.
McMaster, Tillerson, and Mattis make for an impressive triumvirate on national security; they are the adults in the room. But bets are that this team will not last the year. So far, all three have decided to stay put and fight to bring sanity to an administration with little. But eventually the preservation of their own self-respect will likely compel them to flee a sinking ship. When these departures begin, they promise to prompt other high-level advisers to follow suit.
The Russia investigation is the third main source of Trump’s draining political authority. The revelation of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting last April with a Russian team offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton is a dramatic new twist. Whatever the contents of that meeting, we now know that the Trump team was open to, if not enthusiastic about, Russian efforts to sway the outcome of the presidential election. Even if a smoking gun never materializes, the Russia investigation and the additional information that it will surely produce will continue to sap the political credibility of the Trump presidency.
The U.S. Constitution grants the American president broad executive authority. But it also endows Congress, if it so chooses, the capability to push back, making it the nation’s premier instrument for disciplining an errant White House. Such institutional checks, along with defections from the Trump team and damaging disclosures from the Russia investigation, have started to take a serious toll on the Trump presidency.
Under the best of circumstances, it is going to be a very long four years. But boxing in Trump can significantly limit the damage he can do.
A version of this article is appearing in La Stampa and Suddeutsche Zeitung.
Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images