Provocateur-in-Chief Trump Pokes His Own Party’s Power Centers

Updated on
  • Flouts political taboos on gas taxes, North Korea, stimulus
  • President shows in interview how he confounds Republicans

Trump Open to Talks With Kim Jong Un

The Republican president of the United States said he’d be “honored” to meet with North Korea’s leader under the right conditions. That he thinks the country may need an economic “stimulus” package. Or possibly a gas-tax hike for better roads. Maybe even break up the big banks. And certainly a health care bill even more generous than Obamacare for people with pre-existing conditions.

Donald Trump said all of that in one 30-minute interview Monday, and in doing so, managed to poke the eye of just about every major constituency of the Republican party -- military hawks, blue-collar workers, fiscal conservatives, Wall Street bankers and Tea Partiers who’ve made repealing Obamacare an article of faith.

He might be governing as a Republican but sometimes he sounds a lot like a Democrat. And as he turns to the second 100 days of his presidency, this is the Trump that confounds his party -- so much so that congressional leaders effectively ignored him when they put together the recent budget compromise and jettisoned nearly all of his priorities.

This try-anything-that-works approach helped Trump win the White House, with voters who were tired of rigid partisan ideology, but it has made governing more challenging as fellow Republicans often don’t know what’s coming next.

Trump’s tendency to freelance is “not only discouraging” to Republican lawmakers, said GOP strategist Doug Heye, a veteran of Capitol Hill, “it’s also why members of Congress and committee chairs feel that they’re on their own. And when the president says something, sometimes they just shrug their shoulders and go back to doing what they were already doing.”

‘Heavens’

Trump lashed out on Twitter on Tuesday over the budget deal, threatening a government shutdown when the spending plan expires at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

“The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there!” Trump said. “We either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!"

“Heavens,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a 42-year veteran of Washington. “Everything’s kind of out of the box. Isn’t it? There’s nothing traditional going on.”

Not surprisingly, longtime anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist hated the gas tax idea. Noted foreign policy hawk Senator John McCain of Arizona said a Trump meeting with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un, amid a looming nuclear showdown, “could legitimize a person who is hellbent on developing a weapon and an ability to deliver it to the United States of America.”

Trump seemed untroubled by all of this. In his interview with Bloomberg News, he presented himself as a man just trying to find solutions to problems, even if the solutions weren’t yet fully formed. A trucker friend told Trump the roads are chewing up his trucks, so why not consider an increased gas tax to fix them? Kim’s a dangerous leader, but if talking would help, he’s open to it. A lot of people think it might be time to break up the banks, so he’s looking at it “right now.”

‘Risque Quote’

Trump spoke slowly and patiently, wanting to be heard. There was little small talk -- he had news to make. After one longish riff on how “Obamacare doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions because it won’t be here,” Trump stopped. “That’s a risqué quote. But it’s true.”

Trump on May 1.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

As a photographer stepped in for a few shots, Trump noticed a pile of magazines on his desk. “You don’t need a Longines ad,” Trump said, referring to a watch ad on one back cover, and removed the magazines from the desk.

He portrayed reports of infighting within the White House as old news and said chief strategist Steve Bannon and his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner actually have a lot in common. “Bannon is a very decent guy who feels very strongly about the country. Likewise, Jared. And they’re getting along fine,” Trump insisted.

Trump also said he’d probably sign that budget compromise -- noting he did get one thing, $1.5 billion for border security (but not his border wall). The real fight is in September, he said, when Congress makes decisions on spending for the coming year. So he’s fine to put off the battles until then.

Pre-existing Conditions

Of course, for a party that’s trying to prove it can govern, this can all be very confusing, and no place more than Obamacare, where Trump said there is still room for improvement. “I want it to be good for sick people. It’s not in its final form right now,” he said in the interview. “It will be every bit as good on pre-existing conditions as Obamacare.”

Trump’s promise isn’t supported by the current version of the bill coming to a vote as early as this week, which would weaken protections for sick people. If he forces lawmakers to out-Obamacare Obamacare, that legislation would surely fail in the House.

“Call it the Trump factor. People kind of factor in that he marches to the beat of his own drum on these things,” said former Republican Representative Tom Davis of Virginia. “Everybody recognizes that he tends to go off message sometimes and float back in. Some of it is a negotiating tool. Some of it is his freelance way of operating from his TV days.”

Heye said that on tough issues like the American Health Care Act, the House Republican bill, Trump’s comments could give pause to fence-sitting members who might question his commitment, endangering its passage.

Gas Tax

Raising the gas tax has been an idea floated for decades as a way to pay for infrastructure improvements. But it’s a politically toxic move because it would disproportionately hit the middle class and goes against conservatives’ anti-tax stance.

House Republican leaders have for years opposed a gas tax hike. Speaker Paul Ryan in 2015, then the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said plainly that “we won’t pass a gas tax increase.”

His successor chairing the panel, Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, echoed that sentiment on Monday when he said he’s opposed to raising the gas tax. “But we’re going to have that discussion with the White House,” he told reporters. “We want to learn more about the president’s ideas.”

The idea may appeal to Trump for its potential as leverage in negotiations with Democrats and because it would benefit a swatch of middle America that needs road improvements and is the cradle of his political support. However, gas taxes also impact people like Trump’s middle-class voters more than the wealthiest Americans.

Norquist, a longtime gas-tax foe as head of Americans for Tax Reform, said Monday that Congress could instead limit highway trust funds to highway projects and streamline regulations to raise money for infrastructure.

“There is no need -- and no excuse for a tax hike,” Norquist said in a statement. “We can have more roads at lower prices if Congress repeals destructive laws and rules it itself established for sordid reasons.”

Unsavory Folks

As for meeting North Korea’s leader now, conservative Republican donor Foster Friess was unfazed, pointing out that past presidents have met with “some pretty unsavory folks.”

“I’m thrilled that Donald Trump is the guy face-to-face with these dudes,” Friess said. “I wouldn’t want to do it.”

But Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, questioned the value of such an encounter.

“It’s up to the president to decide whom he meets with,” Collins said. But she warned: “I would not think that such a meeting would yield the kinds of results that the president hopes for.”

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, clarified within hours that Trump would only meet Kim if North Korea first met U.S. conditions including reducing its “provocative behavior.”

“Clearly, conditions are not there right now,” Spicer said.

‘Breaking News’

Trump made clear that he considered the North Korea situation one of the most serious he’s confronting. “We have a potentially very bad situation that we will meet in the toughest of all manners if we have to do that,” Trump said.

He also knew the world would want to know whether he’d be willing to meet Kim personally. “Is this going to be breaking news?” he asked, then gave his answer.

“Yes, under the right circumstances, I would absolutely meet with him,” Trump said. “Now, most political people would never say that. But I’m telling you, under the right circumstances, I would meet with him.”

He concluded: “We have breaking news.”

— With assistance by Terrence Dopp

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