Pivoting on pledges, Trump explores art of the climb-down
WASHINGTON — His border shutdown went from imminent to uncertain. A major health-care push was declared and then delayed. Funding cuts were inserted in his proposed budget and just as quickly taken out.
President Donald Trump has been exploring the art of the climb-down.
Trump pivoted on two big policy fronts this week, easing up on his threats to quickly close the southern border and deciding that a fresh effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act should wait until after the 2020 election.
The moves came as Republicans, outside groups and aides expressed anxiety about the potential economic and political fallout from Trump’s proposals.
The president’s swift backpedaling underscored his off-the-cuff style and suggested that more such drama is likely ahead as he tries to sync his policymaking with his re-election campaign.
To many, the Washington whiplash was another reminder that Trump tweets first and governs later.
“Most presidents and even most CEOs, when they make a decision that is going to have financial impact or personnel impact, you seek a lot of input,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler. “He doesn’t do that. Even his own communications staff says he goes by his gut.”
The president’s pronouncements and social media blasts are often surprise attacks. They can vanish as quickly as they emerge if political expedience warrants a different tack.
His announcement last week that the GOP was going to take on health care again despite a bruising and unsuccessful effort in 2017 stunned most in his own party, and seemed driven in part by a lingering desire to fulfill his oft-repeated 2016 campaign promise to repeal “Obamacare.”
He surprised his own education secretary with the declaration that he was reversing a plan to ax federal aid for the Special Olympics after the proposed cuts sparked a public outcry.
Few working for him ever want to get out in front of a Trump announcement for fear it will change at the last minute.
Trump’s latest policy twists come after the conclusion of the special counsel’s Russia investigation and as the president is turning his attention to his 2020 campaign.
His loose style also reflects his current leadership team. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is viewed as a less-controlling figure than previous chiefs, seeking to provide Trump with analysis and information, but not trying to restrict his conversations or steer his decisions.
After threatening last week to seal the border if Mexico did not immediately halt all illegal immigration into the U.S., Trump on Tuesday appeared to be laying the groundwork for a delay, saying he was happy with steps taken by Mexico and that he would like to see Congress pass legislation revising the immigration system. Still, he held open the possibility of a border shutdown, saying: “I’m totally ready to do it.”
Trump has been threatening the closure privately for months, but his staff has been trying to slow him down with data about the economic impact and suggestions on ways to lessen the financial hit.
The president acknowledged the economy was on his mind Tuesday, but played down those concerns, saying, “Let me just give you a little secret: Security is more important to me than trade.”
On health care, Trump plunged into the fight again last week, prompted by a court deadline. But his motivations were always as political as they were legislative, with the president not wanting to cede a 2020 campaign issue to Democrats. And allies stressed Tuesday that the president had never laid out a timeline for legislation.
With his tweet Monday night, Trump made clear there would be no vote until after the 2020 election, though he insisted a GOP plan still was in the works.
His downgrade came after pressure from congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he told Trump “we were not going to be doing that in the Senate.”
Asked if he was acting at McConnell’s behest, Trump insisted: “I wanted to delay it myself.”
Heading into 2020, Trump sees border security and health care as key issues for his political base and he is expected to keep pushing them even if he dials back specific threats.
Speaking Tuesday night at the National Republican Congressional Committee’s spring dinner, he declared that Republicans “should not run away from health care.”
“If we stay away from that subject, we’re going to lose,” Trump said.