At the end of last year’s presidential campaign, a sufficient number of voters in just the right places elected Donald Trump to go shoot up Washington and fundamentally change the way it operates.
He’s got the shooting part down just fine. But the big change part not so much.
In fact, 30 weeks after he took office Trump is still shooting wild words and tweets at most anyone who criticizes him, hints at criticizing him or just moves.
Some Trump advocates say ‘You tell ‘em!’ But some supporters and others who don’t like the boastful New Yorker but had hoped he could deliver some necessary fundamental changes are starting to have serious doubts if he can ever deliver.
The 71-year-old Trump always wants to project strength and power. And he tried to show that in his Afghan speech this week. There’s a reason the real estate mogul did not build or rehab small buildings. And taking on the Washington establishment and the entrenched way it does business is no small task either.
In fact, it’s a huge, perhaps impossible task because the Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyists and especially the media there see their power, influence, job security and incomes threatened by outsider changes to the status quo.
And many of them are quietly seeking to undermine Trump’s efforts with slow-walks, steady leaks, passive-aggressive behavior and an astounding media animus that’s lowered their public standing beneath even Trump’s. This all wounds the rookie president, and prompts him to say more counter-productive, even false things.
Most every modern president – George W. Bush, Barack Obama -- rides into town vowing to fix the place that includes the nation’s wealthiest counties that see no need for fixing. That smug arrogance is a theme that profoundly resonates with those of us who don’t live among all the monuments, grand edifices and matching egos.
Changing Washington would be a herculean, long-term task for even a savvy, disciplined executive with vision and keen political skills. Which Trump is not.
The really rich guy, lone among the more than 20 men and women who offered themselves as potential presidents in the last cycle, read – perhaps sensed is a better word -- the visceral anger and frustration of millions in flyover country. Sporadically attentive to public affairs, these voters had long pleaded, cheered, donated, campaigned and voted for men and women on both sides who promised in so many words to drain the D.C. swamp.
And then didn’t.
Trump spoke to and for those angry hopefuls. They’ve waited years for a champion. They’ve been patient so far and partially satisfied with Trump’s rhetoric, court and cabinet picks and executive orders, even if some are more executive photo-ops than orders.
His achievements, direct and indirect, have actually been many – Keystone Pipeline, VA reforms, regulation rollbacks, advances against ISIS and MS 13, one million-plus new jobs, illegal immigration down, low unemployment despite many re-entering the labor force, soaring mortgage applications, consumer confidence and stock markets, among others.
You might notice that most of his achievements – pulling out of TPP and the Paris Accord, for example – could be done unilaterally by him. As have some negative things like staff turmoil. Things that require teamwork come harder. Take the prolonged disaster that was Obamacare repeal, please.
It’s surprising that someone so successful in conceiving, assembling and driving big projects in the real world finds it so difficult to drive legislators of his own party to accomplish big projects in Washington. Yes, legislators are often hypocritical, egotistical, selfish, self-important, small-minded, parochial men and women with the collective motto “Ubi Est Mea” (Where’s mine?).
But our form of government contains three equal branches for a reason, to deny any of them the power to dominate.
Trump’s a great cajoler. Unfortunately, he’s an awful convincer. Or a lazy one. One might expect a military prep school graduate to have absorbed some self-discipline. Instead, he indulges in recriminatory tweets about has-been TV hosts on a marginal channel, giving them a ratings boost and making himself seem petty.
He criticizes Democrat leaders, of course. But he bitterly attacks leaders of his own GOP, the ones who preserved the Supreme Court vacancy for him and got his nominee through. The same ones he will need for any hope of legislative successes like tax reform in this crucial first year.
Last week’s White House message was the desperate national need for infrastructure repairs, perhaps a trillion dollars worth. Jobs. Growth. A better country. Trump touted his plan at a news conference. Then he demolished its coverage by indulging in punching back at people who charged his Charlottesville reactions were incomplete, insensitive, even racist.
Boy, Trump sure told them. He has a right to do that, of course. But a need? Those critics now know how to get this president off-message and shooting wildly again.
Remember when campaigning Trump criticized the U.S. intelligence community as incompetent? Guess where these national security leaks emanate?
Remember when Trump criticized Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, saying the man who survived six years of POW torture was no hero because he got captured? Perhaps that felt good to punch back for some past perceived slight. But to what productive presidential end?
Now, guess who rose from a cancer treatment bed to fly cross-country and cast the deciding Senate vote that killed Trump’s oft-promised Obamacare repeal?
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.