WASHINGTON – As the U.S. Congress reconvenes after a six-week recess, the administration is mired in controversies, almost all of them set off by President Donald Trump. Trump’s behavior has been at its most peculiar since he took office, undoubtedly partly owing to panic over the 2020 election. He has more reason than most incumbent presidents to wish for re-election, as he is facing several lawsuits.
Perhaps the greatest political danger to Trump lies in the growing evidence that he has used the presidency to enrich himself. Unlike his predecessors, Trump declined to put his assets in a blind trust and he is being sued for accepting constitutionally prohibited “emoluments” (payments to a president by foreign governments). For example, the Saudis and others have made extensive use of his hotels, including one near the White House. Similarly, at last month’s Group of Seven summit, Trump let it be known that he wants to host next year’s meeting at his struggling golf resort near Miami.
Voters may well have grown accustomed to Trump’s frequent patronage of his own hotels and golf facilities (along with the cost of the Secret Service and other attendants). According to one estimate, by mid-July, Trump had spent 194 days at his own golf courses, earning the Trump Organization $109 million. Various Republican Party functions have taken place on his properties.
But in recent days, Trump’s presidential greed was in particularly high relief. First, there was Vice President Mike Pence, who earlier this month stayed at a Trump-owned facility in Ireland, flying 290 km to reach his high-level meetings. Pence’s chief of staff ultimately confessed that Trump had “suggested” the accommodations.
Shortly thereafter, Politico reported that earlier this year a military transport on a routine supply trip to the Middle East refueled near a Trump-owned property in Scotland, where the fuel cost more than at military facilities normally used during flights to the Middle East. The five-man crew stayed overnight at Trump’s Turnberry golf resort. Having discovered many more stopovers at Turnberry, the air force has ordered a review of its use of stopover facilities around the world. Trump has turned the presidency into a racket.
In addition to revelations of Trump’s venality, his near-pathological insecurity has become increasingly flagrant. To Trump’s mind, an associate has said, to admit an error is to appear weak. The most flagrant recent example was his desperation to convince the public he hadn’t been wrong in predicting Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. It was so essential to him that, using a black marker, he modified a National Weather Service map to indicate that this state would be affected.
Then, at the behest of the White House, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather service, issued an unsigned statement supporting Trump and repudiating a correction of Trump that had been issued by the service’s meteorologists in Birmingham, Alabama. Thus, a crucial federal agency was corrupted, and in the future, no one can be certain of the truth of Trump’s emergency warnings.
In another controversy, Trump stirred up a ruckus this month by ordering $3.6 billion in Pentagon construction funds to be shifted to his phantasmagoric wall on the southern border with Mexico. Despite doubts about the constitutionality of a president unilaterally diverting appropriations approved by Congress, 127 projects — many of them schools and other facilities to take care of military families and some of them in states represented by Republicans up for re-election next year — lost their funding. Trump has also transferred funds to be used for disaster relief — on the eve of hurricane season.
These moves highlight Trump’s desperation to have a substantial portion of the wall built or underway by the election. He’s a long way from it. What he described as a 1,600-km concrete barrier is now to be about half that length and, so far, all that has been constructed is 102 km of steel fences to replace structures installed during the Obama administration. With his supporters feeling let down by the lack of progress, the president even told aides to seize private lands if necessary and that he would pardon them if they broke the law.
Although few believe that Trump’s wall is the most efficient way to keep out illegal immigrants, his mentions of it during the 2016 campaign drew wild cheers. It still does, so he has stuck himself with the issue.
Other major issues on the agenda this fall — including gun control and a decision by House Democrats on whether to launch a formal impeachment process — are also likely to ratchet up pressure on Trump. Foreign policy, too, is causing Trump — and the country — problems. His tariff war with China is damaging the U.S. economy; signature initiatives, including direct negotiations with North Korea and the Taliban, are unraveling. Pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, predictably, has backfired.
The sudden dismissal this week of John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, was both surprising and inevitable, because it’s been clear the two men disagree on most foreign policy issues. Bolton was the hawk to Trump’s dove; one of the more interesting disclosures about the president is that he really doesn’t want to go to war. The final split apparently came when Bolton let it be known that he opposed Trump negotiating with the Taliban so that U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan, preferably by the election. Trump also evidently wanted to host the Taliban at a Camp David peace conference.
But Bolton’s removal won’t make much difference. Many of Trump’s goals are unrealistic. He’s a bad negotiator. And his White House has no coherent decision-making process. U.S. foreign policy has come to reflect Trump’s caprices and his outsize faith in his ability to persuade others.
The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his re-election effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist. ©Project Syndicate, 2019