Typically, the president of a party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress is the leader of any major legislative push. But with Donald Trump, the opposite is true. Rather than guiding the legislative process, he is its chief impediment.
To understand just how difficult Trump's antics have made it for Republicans to pursue policy reforms, consider the interview that Bloomberg News conducted with Rep. Kevin Brady on Wednesday. Brady is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and a leading figure in the GOP's push to overhaul the tax code, the next major item on the party's legislative agenda. The interview was timed to coincide the 31st anniversary of the last time Congress agreed to pursue tax reform legislation. Brady was there to talk about taxes.
He ended up talking about Nazis.
"I strongly condemn the white supremacists, the KKK, the neo-Nazis and the violence and hatred they bring to this," Brady said in the interview. That's not exactly the pullquote you want to come out of an interview on tax policy.
Brady, of course, had to make this statement in the midst of an interview ostensibly about tax reform because it had proven so difficult for President Donald Trump to make a similar condemnation following a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly over the weekend. A woman protesting the rally was killed when a car, allegedly driven by a man with white supremacist sympathies, plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters at speed.
The chaos surrounding Trump's presidency has ground the legislative process to a halt, and made traditional governance all but impossible. And in the process it has revealed the emptiness at the core of the president, whose only real focus is and always has been crude self-promotion.
Trump's initial reaction, to weakly blame violence "on many sides," generated enough pushback, including from fellow Republicans, that he gave a brief statement on Monday specifically denouncing white supremacist groups — a follow-up that he reportedly resisted staff pressure to deliver. But in an angry press conference on Tuesday, Trump doubled down on his initial position, declaring that there was "blame on both sides."
Tuesday's press conference was itself a prime example of the way that Trump's belligerence, inexperience, and combative demeanor have combined to make any sort of discussion virtually impossible. The event was supposed to be a no-questions affair about streamlining the infrastructure permitting process, but Trump, reportedly against the wishes of his staff, decided to take questions instead, making it clear, in the process, that Monday's clean-up statement was delivered grudgingly.
This is not a problem that is being forced on the president. It is a problem that is a direct result of his own choices. It is Trump's fault, and Trump's alone.
The fallout from the Tuesday press conference didn't just interrupt Kevin Brady's plan to tout tax reform. It also led to the breakup of Trump's Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of high-profile corporate executives that had been formed to provide the new president with guidance on policy. Following Trump's response to the events in Charlottesville, several CEOs stepped down. Others plotted a harsh response to Trump. Finally, the entire council was disbanded. Plans for another planned council of CEOs, intended to focus on infrastructure, were scrapped yesterday.
This is the way it has been with Trump since the beginning. During the campaign, his total inability to discuss policy, and his penchant for odious remarks, meant that Republicans ran a primary and then a general election campaign almost entirely divorced from substantive discussion of policy issues.
He gleefully touted Trump-branded products like Trump Steaks that didn't actually exist, and chewed through hours of live television airtime, but rarely if ever discussed policy on its merits, preferring to engage in endless presidential flame wars instead. The only "issue" that ever held his attention was Trump himself. That hasn't changed. And it has had consequences.
After taking office this year, Trump repeatedly stepped on Republican efforts to pass health care legislation. He urged wary GOP lawmakers to pass the bill, but could not defend or explain it. On the contrary, he called it "mean." He ramped up tensions with holdout legislators, and in general made the process more difficult whenever he got involved. The process ended when a trio of Senators voted not to proceed, one of whom was John McCain, who Trump derided on the campaign trail as "not a war hero."
It's instructive to compare Trump administration's near-silence on the specific merits of GOP health care legislation — the president never made a strong case for the plan — with its quick and full-throated response this week. A few hours after Trump's press conference outburst, the White House sent out a sheet of talking points, beginning with the words "the president is entirely correct."
More than half way through the first year of his presidency, Trump has achieved no major legislative victories, even with his own party controlling both chambers of Congress. The rest of his agenda has stalled as well, because Trump has nearly every moment proven an impediment and a distraction. Even Trump's executive orders on immigration have been held up in court in part because of the president's tweets. At no point has Trump demonstrated that he has the focus or attention span to pursue conventional policy goals.
Indeed, the founder of the Journal of American Greatness, perhaps the most prominent publication dedicated to advancing and exploring Trump's specific policy agenda, came out strongly against the president this week, arguing that the president's "actions are jeopardizing any prospect of enacting an agenda that might restore the promise of American life." Even those in favor of something like a Trump agenda are realizing that Trump himself is not a vehicle by which to accomplish it.
At this point, it is probably a mistake to think of Trump as having a traditional policy or governing agenda at all. Instead, he is demonstrating his true interests every day with his belligerent tweets and inflammatory statements and obsessive self-aggrandizement. Trump's true agenda? You're witnessing it.