President Donald Trump, for all his bluster and outward aggression, is a weak man. He eventually backs down when circumstances are right. For example:
▪ He hasn’t fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
▪ He hasn’t fired special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
▪ He signed the Russia sanctions bill.
▪ He fired Michael Flynn (and seems to have regretted it ever since).
▪ He reaffirmed our support for NATO.
▪ He signed a budget resolution without funding for the wall.
▪ He did not withdraw from NAFTA.
▪ He now has singled out for condemnation the KKK, neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
We do not know if a certain combination of advisers prevailed upon him to do what he had so strenuously rejected. What is clear is that his position with his base is weakening and his overall polling numbers are still sinking. He hit a new low in Gallup at 34 percent approval and new high in disapproval of 61 percent. He therefore may be amenable to even more pressure going forward. So what “works” with him?
First, he would rather bully aides into leaving (such as Sessions) than take the initiative to remove them himself. If the victim of his bullying ignores him and keeps plugging away, Trump very well may back down.
Second, when it’s hopeless to resist (for example, a veto on Russia would have been overridden) he’ll relent.
Third, when many Republicans are on the other side he usually does not have the wherewithal to persist in a ridiculous position. In the case of Charlottesville, even allies such as Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, singled out and denounced the white supremacist groups. When they are divided or egging him on (trade restrictionism, a commission to investigate non-existent, massive voter fraud, leaving the Paris climate agreement), Trump is much more likely to pursue his wrongheaded, even ridiculous position.
Four, when he doesn’t have to explain, answer questions or concede he backed down he is more likely to go along with the party. He had no signing statement for the Russia sanctions; he took no questions on Charlottesville Monday. Remember, protecting his ego is his constant task, hearing that he “lost” is unbearable.
And this goes back to two critical points about Republicans and the Trump presidency. First, he got to the presidency and continues to govern in extreme, abnormal ways because the GOP as a whole will not challenge him. If House and Senate leadership, for example, can drain the Trump swamp by requiring full disclosure of his tax returns, ending nepotism and enforcing the emoluments clause, they can speak with one voice to demand alt-right heroes such as Stephen K. Bannon and Sebastian Gorka leave the White House. They can, once again, refuse to fund the wall — or the phony election fraud commission. Trump, we’ve learned time and time again, can be forced to back down when the deck is stacked against him.
Second, Trump has no real beliefs. Other than feeding his base, undermining his opponents, concealing his finances and racking up “wins,” he doesn’t much care what comes out of Congress. It’s therefore incumbent on constructive lawmakers, including the problem-solvers caucus in the House, to set forth bipartisan, reasonable proposals on tax reform (not huge tax cuts for the rich), infrastructure, legal immigration (not slashing it in half) and shoring up the individual health-care market. Trump lacks moral and political leadership. It’s time for responsible public figures to fill it.
As for Trump, GOP lawmakers, when appropriate, should denounce his lies, egregious pronouncements and wrongheaded polices. Otherwise, frankly, they should ignore him and instead follow an agenda that will draw bipartisan support. Most important, when Mueller comes out with his findings, they must if warranted impeach and remove the president. What we now know is if they are prepared to do so, Trump will quit first.