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Trump Puts His Weakness on Display

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump has become so weak that even when the formal powers of the presidency favor him the most — in his role of commander in chief — he can be easily rolled. And this feebleness costs him everywhere, including in his impotent bargaining position on his border wall and the shutdown.

Last month, Trump declared that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria within 30 days. That’s no longer operative. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested the withdrawal would only occur under certain conditions and could be months or even years away. Staffers aren’t supposed to be able to put conditions on a president’s decisions about troop deployments; the Pentagon isn’t supposed to be able to, either. Even if you believe, as Richard Neustadt taught, that presidential power is very limited, everyone agrees that a president’s position is strongest with regard to commander-in-chief functions, one of the very few constitutional powers they have that aren’t easily checked by others.(1)

And yet the Syria episode is a good demonstration of just how much Trump’s influence has eroded through inept presidenting. Slate’s Fred Kaplan has a good overview of the chaos that reportedly began when Trump simply acted impulsively on Syria after a conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. It’s not so much that leaving Syria is a terrible option; experts seem to differ on that. It’s that Trump ignored the policy process before announcing his decision, and therefore failed to get any buy-in from potential allies within or outside of the administration. Nor did he learn the weak points of his plan, things he might have modified to appease opponents of the policy shift. The result: widespread condemnation, especially from Republicans, and the resignations of the secretary of defense and the special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State.

That December blow-up (and all that preceded it) leave Trump even more vulnerable to Bolton’s maneuverings against his policy. Sure, Trump could obviously stand up for his plan by firing his national security adviser. But since Bolton is already Trump’s third NSA in under two years, and since a third or so of Trump’s cabinet is already filled with temporary “actings,” canning yet another key player would be very costly. It’s worth noting, too, that Trump hired Bolton just a few months ago, and it’s not exactly a secret that Bolton is a hawk when it comes to the Middle East. If Trump wanted to withdraw troops and disengage, hiring Bolton made no sense at all, even given that the White House chaos probably meant that the list of qualified experts willing to take the job was extremely limited.

The result: as the political scientist Dave Hopkins put it, “More evidence that Trump the ‘authoritarian’ is actually the weakest president in modern history.”

None of this happens in a vacuum. As Neustadt explained, everyone who must work with the president is constantly watching him to learn of his strengths and weaknesses, his patterns of action, whether his word can be counted on, and more. And what Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and everyone else see is a president who acts impulsively, who is easily rolled even when he has institutional advantages, who fails to plan ahead or to learn the policy basics, and who can’t be counted on to defend his own positions. What that means for Democrats in the shutdown confrontation is that negotiating a deal with him is both impossible, and probably unnecessary: They can count on him to eventually swing in their direction, or at least to fold. And for rank-and-file congressional Republicans, it means there’s no safe ground. Oppose him and they risk being attacked, but support him and they risk being undermined — or being led into so many obvious traps it’ll seem like Admiral Ackbar is the party mascot.

And as political scientist Matt Glassman points out, one failure only leads to another:

Trump has always behaved like this. But while his reputation mattered in his previous careers, he had never been subjected to the kind of attention he is getting as president. There are no political players who are unaware of Trump’s dismal professional track record and remain available for him to work the presidential equivalent of Trump University on. And absent the extremely unlikely possibility that he’ll actually change how he operates and then manage to convince the world of it, Glassman is correct: It’s only going to get worse.

(1) It's true that Congress can put strings on appropriations that force the president's hand. But within the executive branch, the president's position is strongest with the military, where he has an outright constitutional grant of authority.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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