WASHINGTON – Supporters and critics of President Donald Trump finally have something they can agree on: His alliance with Democrats for a short-term fix on crucial debt ceiling legislation proves his bona fides as a dealmaker once and for all.
“This is brilliant,” said Michael Caputo, a former campaign aide who previously worked with Trump for several years on other issues, adding that the strategy reminded him of Trump’s 1987 bestseller. “It’s straight out of The Art of the Deal.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one of Trump’s informal advisers said taking up Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on their offer of a three-month extension to the nation’s borrowing authority meant clearing the deck for his top priority. “What he wanted to do was spend the next three months doing tax reform,” the adviser said. “This lets him do that.”
But the notion that the president’s move was somehow good for Republicans as a whole or even Trump personally brought open laughter from Trump’s GOP critics, who said it actually proves that his “dealmaking” prowess has always been a scam.
“He’s as reliable as a rattlesnake,” said Florida Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who added that Trump has now empowered Democrats to win their positions on any number of issues, from tax policy to health care. “You gave the Democrats a gun to your head. These guys are now hostage to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and even Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, had wanted an 18-month extension of the debt ceiling, pushing its expiration to beyond the 2018 congressional elections. Increasing the statutory debt limit does not increase debt, but merely authorizes the government to pay debts already incurred. Nevertheless, in recent decades, lawmakers ― especially Republicans ― have conflated the two in their campaigns for office, and prefer to minimize the number of times they must cast debt-ceiling votes. Thanks to Trump, they will now have two such votes in a matter of three months heading into primary election season.
One of those wrapped up Friday, with the House overwhelmingly passing a package that included $15 billion for Hurricane Harvey relief, a three-month government funding bill, and the Schumer-Pelosi three-month debt ceiling extension. The Senate had already passed it on Thursday.
“He insists on loyalty, never gives any back,” said John Weaver, who worked on Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination last year.
Other Republicans, who supported Trump once he had secured the nomination and defended him because they believed he would approve GOP legislative priorities, saw this latest move as a threat to their agenda. “He thinks he’s going to play the Democrats off the Republicans,” said one longtime Republican National Committee member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Ryan and McConnell better plan for more.”
Many of the same Republicans surprised and dismayed by Trump’s move had openly embraced him a year ago. They pushed on voters the idea that he was a smart, wealthy business executive – that despite a record that included scores of lawsuits, four bankruptcies and a relatively low net worth given that he began four decades ago with a business worth $1 billion in today’s dollars.
That actual history, Wilson said, should have guided congressional leaders as they dealt with his White House. “He’s never kept a vow, contract or agreement. Ever. Sane people know he’s a lying liar who lies at all times,” he said, attributing Trump’s successful image to his hit television show, “The Apprentice.” “He’s not really a business guy. He’s a guy who played a business guy on TV.”
Trump’s defenders say that if Republicans are angry about Trump choosing to work with Democrats, they have only themselves to blame for failing to give Trump legislative successes during his first seven months in office. “They’ve been openly hostile to him for months. This is the price they pay,” Caputo said. “He taught the Republicans a lesson they sorely needed.”
Weaver disputed that congressional Republicans have been holding Trump back, arguing that Trump’s failure to achieve any significant legislation on his priorities this year was due entirely to the president’s lack of serious interest in any issue. “Which is what?” Weaver said about Trump’s supposed priorities. “Other than blocking the Russia investigation, I’m not sure what he wanted.”
He warned his fellow Republicans that the worst was likely yet to come, with Trump continuing to abandon GOP legislative goals in favor of whatever he happens to seize upon at that moment – and taking his strongest supporters with him, endangering Republicans in next fall’s elections.
“His hardcore 20 percent?” Weaver said. “They don’t really care about Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand agenda or Mitch McConnell’s apparatchik agenda.
This story was updated to include congressional votes on the three-month debt limit proposal.