December 21, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
A Weak President Is a Dangerous President
Why is Trump going to shut down the government? To stay out of jail.
On Thursday morning, it looked like the president was going to buckle under pressure to sign a “continuing resolution” to keep the government running until February. Donald Trump puled and prattled about Congressional Democrats not giving him $5 billion for the border wall he promised his supporters, but given his tweets about getting the money from somewhere—from Mexico or another part of government, both claims being bullshit—it looked like he was going to step back from the brink.
By Thursday afternoon, everything changed.
Trump refused to sign a bipartisan spending bill passed earlier in the week that included money for “border security,” but not a barrier (or fencing or “slats” or whatever). House Republicans scrambled to provide cover, passing a new bill that included $5 billion for a wall. Now it goes to the Senate where it must overcome a filibuster, an impossibility given that the Republicans don’t have a 60-plus seat majority. The president really is going to shut down the government.
But why did this happen? Ann Coulter is why.
That ghoul’s opinions are probably an accurate measure of how the president’s base is feeling about him. In a Thursday interview with the Daily Caller, Coulter said that if he does not deliver on the border wall, it will prove that Donald Trump is “gutless.” She said he will “have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people, amused the populist for a while, but he’ll have no legacy whatsoever.” She added:
My prediction is his support will evaporate and Trump will very likely not finish his term and definitely not be elected to a second term.
Before I go on, I should say the president can’t win this fight, though he has incentive to keep fighting it (more on that in a moment). First, he’s already said in the clearest terms that he will take full responsibility for a shutdown if shutting down the government is what it takes, in his words, to protect the country against criminal aliens. Second, he said that he would not blame the Democrats. Expect to see this clip over and over again until the shutdown ends (whenever that will be).
But there’s a less obvious reason. The president appears to believe that shutting down the government gives him leverage. It doesn’t. No one likes shutdowns. No one.
The Democrats thought they had the advantage when earlier this year they demanded from the president protections for immigrant children brought to the US illegally. They thought saving kids would get public opinion behind them in their standoff. They were wrong. Within days of the shutdown, the Democrats caved. Does Trump think the public is going to get behind a border wall? Alas, he probably does.
More importantly, the Democrats won the midterms by a landslide. Come January, when they take over the House, they will most likely pass a new bill to reopen the government, one without wall money, and Senate Republicans will mostly likely pass that bill before demanding that the president sign it. Trump is not only doing something unpopular (shutting down the government); he’s doing it without leverage.
What does that tell you? It tells you that Trump is weak and getting weaker, which is the thing he fears most for a very good reason. Without the strong support of a majority of hardcore racists in the Republican Party, this presidency is cooked.
Remember that if he were anyone but the president, Trump would almost certainly face the same criminal justice that sentenced former attorney Michael Cohen to three years in prison for lying the investigators and defrauding the American people. Trump has incentives to stay in power that have nothing to do with normal political considerations. Quite literally, being president is keeping him out of jail.
So you can imagine what was going through his head when he saw Coulter’s remarks about being gutless and facing the likelihood of vanishing support among the very people he once said would stand by him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Loosely translated, what was going through his head was: “I gotta save my skin!”
But as I said, he can’t.
Moreover, the Democrats have every incentive to say no. In the closing weeks of the midterm election, Trump ran a campaign of bull-horn white supremacy, and got his ass handed to him. In saying no, the Democrats can wedge the president between Senate Republicans, who don’t want a shutdown fight, and his base, which wants a shutdown fight even if he can’t win. Already, this morning, Trump told reporters, “I don’t know that Sen. [Mitch] McConnell is concerned about the country.”
That might be good for the Democrats if not for the danger facing the republic from a president who’s become so weak he’s willing to do anything to stay in power.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.