| January 24, 2019 05:13 PM
President Trump’s strategy of forcing a government shutdown to get funding for a border wall took another blow on Thursday when a Democratic bill to reopen the government received more votes in the Republican-controlled Senate than his own compromise bill that included wall funding.
There is, right now, more evidence that Trump’s support is fracturing than there is of disunion among Democrats, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is showing no signs of retreat. The chances of Trump getting his border wall dwindle by the day.
Watching how poorly Trump has played his hand on the border wall, dating back to the start of his presidency, when his party controlled both branches of Congress and he was coming off an election win, really highlights a missing ingredient that has severely imperiled Trump’s agenda. It comes down to personnel. Trump’s administration has included people who want to fight for his agenda who have little or no experience getting things accomplished in government. It also has people who have experience with government, but have no loyalty to his agenda. It has very few people who have both attributes. And many who have neither.
This is among the most common complaint I’ve heard from people who are sympathetic to Trump, but frustrated on progress on a number of issues, whether on immigration, healthcare, or foreign policy. Just look at Pelosi and how she’s wielded her power in the border wall fight. Even on something ultimately unimportant like the State of the Union. She knew she had the power to block a joint session of Congress and thus prevent him from giving a high-profile speech in the House chamber, she asserted that power, held firm, and Trump backed down. It just reinforced a feeling that Democrats know to use power when they have it to fight for their agenda, but Republicans never do. Trump was supposed to change things, but he has not been able to, because he’s lacked the right people.
Advisers such as Stephen Miller or, formerly, Steve Bannon, by and large, support the Trump agenda. But neither of them had the skill set to either build consensus on Capitol Hill, or wield power in a way that can muscle policies through Congress. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and ex-chief of staff John Kelly came to their jobs with reputations for competence, but clearly were not fully on board with Trumpism and spent much of their time trying to contain him.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist about the “deep state” to recognize that many career employees of government agencies hate Trump and want to thwart his agenda. Even many appointees have approached their job as if their purpose is to manage him rather than to go to war for his policies — a sentiment infamously demonstrated by the anonymous New York Times op-ed.
There are other figures we’ve seen who were kind of the worst of both worlds. Reince Priebus had been an effective RNC chairman, but he was not the right fit to be chief of staff — nor did he really share Trump’s vision for the country. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have been an impressive CEO, but was completely out of his depth in Foggy Bottom, and fought to undermine Trump’s foreign policy, particularly on Iran.
Trump’s greatest successes have come in areas in which there were people working together who a) shared his goals and b) knew how to make them happen. A perfect example is judicial nominees, in which former White House Counsel Don McGahn consulted with outside groups such as the Federalist Society, who were eager to help Trump fulfill his promise of appointing conservative judges. The Trump team coordinated things closely with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who understood what it would take to get a lot of them confirmed.
There have also been successes in some areas of regulatory policy.
But Trump is seriously lacking people who are true believers in his cause who know enough about how to get things done in Washington. The reality is Republicans had the power in 2017 to build a wall if there was somebody knowledgeable about both immigration policy and legislative tactics to enable Trump to harness that power. This was always going to be a major challenge running as an outsider, against the party’s establishment, with plenty of seasoned hands in the party refusing to join the administration.
So he finds himself in the current situation — a protracted shutdown in which he lacks leverage. On the one side, people who want him to cave in and offer more fig leafs to Democrats, and on the other, people who are eager to see him carry on the fight with no strategy to win. This is the story of much of Trump’s presidency.