Let’s admit it, folks. Trump had a not-bad week. But the Republic had a pretty good week, too.
For starters, Trump learned the value of the tactical retreat. After initially doubling down on his assault on the courts (with a tweet, no less), a maneuver all but guaranteed to produce at least six Supreme Court votes against his anti-Muslim executive order, Trump told reporters that he might issue a much narrower order that could withstand constitutional scrutiny.
For the moment, the core principle that ours is a Republic of laws, not of men (or women), has held. Even a far-right judge appointed by George W. Bush, Richard Clifton, voted to make the ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimous. The court took most umbrage at the White House claim that the president’s actions were “unreviewable.”
Trump also learned the virtue of a tactical retreat when it comes to provoking a needless war. After an impulsive embrace of Taiwan and a seeming reversal of America’s long standing acceptance of the principle that there is only one Chinese government, Trump meekly bowed to Chinese pressure and confirmed in a phone call with China’s Xi Jinping that the U.S. respects the One China policy.
Diplomacy with China is nothing if not tricky. It is the last situation on the world that rewards the impulsive gesture. You can just imagine the adults trying to explain the realities to Trump. Trump beat a further retreat on his blanket support for more Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank. This could be more Trump double-speak, of course. The true U.S. policy remains to be seen.
What’s at work here?
First, it appears that the grownups in the room are beginning to protect Trump from his own nuttier impulses; second, maybe Trump himself is grasping that he wasn’t elected dictator; and third, there is a reality outside of his bubble, which constrains his absolute freedom to indulge tantrums.
Actions have consequences. Imagine that.
This, of course, is good news and bad news. It makes it less likely that Trump will blunder into war, but also less likely that Trump will destroy himself.
This past week, Trump also found that bluster occasionally pays off. In their national day celebrating the anniversary of their 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian leadership was far more muted than usual in its denunciations of The Great Satan.
Iran has a fragile agreement with the U.S. to protect—lifting of sanctions in exchange for a freeze on development of nuclear weapons—and the regime does not want to make waves with an American president who is a lot crazier than they are.
The U.S.-Iran détente, which gives Trump some leverage, is of course to the credit of one Barack Obama, but never mind.
At home, Trump managed to get his far-right cabinet nominees confirmed. It may well take a reversal of the Senate’s filibuster rule, but Trump is also likely to win confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. And he faced down his own Secretary to State, Rex Tillerson, to veto the nomination of the weasely Eliot Abrams to be deputy secretary. This news is also double edged.
Abrams was a neo-con super-hawk, convicted of lying to Congress for his role in the Iran-Contra affair and later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush to block further investigations that could have implicated President Reagan.
Abrams was a friend of thuggish dictators. He would have fit all too well into the Trump Administration, but for his unpardonable error of having criticized Trump. The next appointee will probably be worse. But the Abrams affair shows that there are limits to the ability of the grown-ups to contain Trump. He is the decider.
So maybe Trump’s good news isn’t such bad news after all. We can count on more outbursts, more self-destructive acts, and more vicious infighting.
Trump remains in flagrant violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution of because of his profiteering from his conduct of the foreign relations of the United States. The investigations of Trump’s real motivations in his dealings with Vladimir Putin continue.
There are credible reports that the intelligence community is withholding highly sensitive information from National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and from the president himself, because of legitimate concerns about what might leak back to Putin. All this gives conventional Republicans hives.
If ever there were an impeachable offense, selling out the national security for your business interests has to top the list.
Though Republicans in Congress are happy to take the deregulation, the tax cuts, right wing appointees and the government-bashing, they will desert Trump once he becomes sufficiently radioactive. In the meantime, the anti-Trump movement in the country only grows stronger, teaching us all a lesson in what democracy looks like.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis
University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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