Disasters happen. Nature refuses to cooperate with the best-laid plans of kings and lesser men alike. The 3 a.m. phone call, whether it’s a foreign policy crisis, a natural disaster, or an economic challenge, always, inevitably and inexorably comes.
For this president, a man with a notoriously short attention span and a singular focus on his own internal ego monster, the destruction and damage from Harvey is just one part of a perfect political storm approaching Donald Trump and his administration.
There are five political elements in the fall forecast that will combine to make Trump’s first autumn in office rough going.
First, the basic, fundamental problem is President Short Attention Span himself. Trump’s inability to focus for longer than the duration of a tweet will make his troubles in the coming months much, much worse. Consider last Sunday as an example. At first, he greeted the day with a few on-point messages of support for the people hit hard by Harvey. Then things went off the rails, with a logrolling promotion of Sheriff David Clarke’s book, some bleating about Mexico paying for the imaginary Wall, and a swipe at Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. While FEMA, the State of Texas, and tens of thousands of volunteers buckled down for recovery operations, Donald Trump was engaged in his usual Twitter logorrhea.
If you thought that Trump would improve once Steve Bannon, Seb Gorka and a few of the other hangers-on were fired, think again. Trump is always Trump, and never, ever improves. Even the scripted statements and speeches where he reads from the teleprompter are done through gritted teeth, and you can practically see the mania building as he plots his next attention-whoring outrage. John Kelly’s thankless task won’t get easier. The prisoner never loves his warden, even if he obeys the rules from time to time. The White House staff will need to keep the shock collar charged in the next 10 days, as the scope of the deaths and destruction becomes clear.
Second, Donald Trump’s disaster on race isn’t over, no matter how many variations of the staff-driven cleanup speeches and remarks he reads. The cat was out of the bag the moment the “both sides” speech lowered the bar on presidential moral character, and it’s cracked the loyalty of his Cabinet and deeply embarrassed an already shamed and disgusted Republican Congress.
As much as the Russian propaganda machine and its American fellow travelers on the clickservative right play moral equivalency games where the Old Navy anarchists of Antifa are equal to neo-Nazis, Klansmen, alt-reichers, and the rest of their white-supremacist flotsam, the damage Trump took on this is real and lasting.
Trump’s manic speech in Phoenix last week continued to shine a light on the deep panic inside his Administration over his race problem. When Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, Jim Mattis, and the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs publicly rebuked the “both sides” argument, Trump was in the unusual position of being the one thrown under the bus.
Of course, he doubled down on his troubles with his pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Because if you’re besieged on all sides for dog-whistling and rubbing ankles under the table with the worst racists in the country, the logical step is to pardon a man who defines abuse of power under the color of law by running an illegal roundup of the dastardly brown people from down Mexico way. In what many commentators viewed as a warm-up act for Pardonpalooza 2018, Trump reminded conservatives once again that the whole “rule of law” thing is for losers and if we’re going to MAGA, he’s giving his friends (and likely, his family) a free pass.
Third, Trump’s promise to shut down the government unless Congress funds his absurd Wall led to members of both congressional bodies rolling their eyes so hard it’s surprising they don’t need ophthalmic surgery. The fall was going to be tough enough on Trump, with a debt ceiling fight that could lead to the usual shutdown drama that Wall Street hates with the fire of a thousand suns. Now, his threat to try a government shutdown over the Wall has already led to abundantly clear stock market signals even an economic clodhopper like Trump can’t ignore.
Why? Because the stock market is one of the only measurable indicators to which Trump can point as a success story. Aside from a cluster of executive orders, there is no Trump economic policy. There is no Trump budget. There is no Trump strategy because there never is. He chest-beats about the stock market and consumer confidence constantly, but both are volatile as hell in situations like the one we find ourselves in now.
Fourth, the economic stresses on the country from Harvey, like every other natural disaster on this scale, weren’t caused by Trump, but they will change markets and impact everyday Americans. The coming sharp spike in gas prices due to Texas refineries and other energy facilities going dark after the damage from Harvey is inevitable. The costs of the recovery effort will likely put a massive strain on not only on Federal resources, but major insurers and employers, and blow a hole in the Texas and national economies. Trump isn’t ready for this because he’s never ready for anything, but if a big part of his narrative that his brief, spotty tenure as president is an economic miracle, he’d better hurry.
Those same economic stresses will be hitting hardest just as Congress begins to negotiate on the debt ceiling, an event usually marked by Washington jackassery on both sides of the aisle, with drama queens swooning and fainting over the doom that will befall America if they don’t get their exact way. This year, that’s off. They know that Houston trumps Trump. Trump’s hollow threat to shut down the government over the Wall was a dumb political move in a catalog of dumb Trump political moves; he’s the kid who claims to know krav maga, then gets BTFOed with one punch, and a shutdown now would shred the willingness even of this supine Congress to defend him. There won’t be a shutdown. The debt ceiling will be raised. Trump will not like it, and we can expect the usual tantrums.
Finally and fifth, the topic that makes Trump climb the Oval Office walls like a rabid animal; Russia. The Russia crisis never goes away, and never gets any better. The Trump and Bannon efforts to oust Mueller (or Jeff Sessions in order to move the chess pieces to get a pliant replacement attorney general who would fire Mueller) failed, despite the full-throated outrage of Trump’s media machine. The Special Counsel continues to grind methodically through the evidence of connection, collusion, and obstruction in the Russia case that drives the president mad. No tweet will stop Mueller, and nothing good is coming for Trump in the months ahead.
For the first 200 or so days of this show, Donald Trump brought most of his trouble on himself and did little to give people hope he would in any way improve. Even on the few scripted, controlled days when he briefly Plays President on TV, he’s always itching to fall back into his bad behaviors. When it was one small crisis, or internecine White House backstabbing, or an upcoming vote in Congress, Trump’s could move on to an easier task.
Not anymore. The perfect political storm this fall is coming. And the forecast calls for pain.