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Jonathan Bernstein

Trump’s Presidency Is Getting Weaker

A defeat for the president’s “Space Force” proposal was typical – and telling.

Keepin’ the dream alive.

Keepin’ the dream alive.

Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty

This week offered two prime examples of why Donald Trump’s presidency has been weaker than most people realize.

First: “Although President Donald Trump tweeted that he had ordered his administration to cut off disaster aid to wildfire victims in California, federal officials confirmed on Wednesday that they never received any such directive.” Political scientist Brendan Nyhan gets it right: “Weakest president in contemporary times. ‘Ordered’ likely means he said something to a staff member who ignored him.” 

: “Bowing to bipartisan concerns in Congress, President Trump retreated Tuesday from his plan to create an independent ‘space force’ in the Pentagon, proposing instead to consolidate the military’s space operations and personnel in the Air Force.” Kevin Drum at Mother Jones explains: “So now it’s just a branch of the Air Force, which is more-or-less what it already is since the Air Force Space Command already exists. It’s just going to get a little bigger now.”

In both cases, it’s as if Trump had carefully read Richard Neustadt’s classic study of presidential power and then chosen to do the exact opposite of what it advises.

I don’t know if Nyhan’s speculation about the disaster aid is correct, although it sounds right to me. Maybe there was an order but FEMA ignored it. Maybe Trump invented the episode. Maybe he was effectively talking back to his television set. The thing is, there’s no plausible interpretation that looks good for him. Either he’s not being honest, he doesn’t know how to achieve his goals in office, or he knows but he’s so ineffectual that agencies can disregard him with little consequence. Maybe it’s some combination.

As for the Space Force, I’ve been skeptical from the start on this one. It was always highly unlikely that this president was going to win a war against the Pentagon bureaucracy on a reform of such magnitude and divisiveness. (After all, he still hasn’t even managed to get the military parade he wanted.)

I’m not saying that presidents should never take on the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Pentagon. Just that they have to choose their battles carefully. Cutting off disaster relief out of pique probably isn’t a good idea at any point. Creating a “Space Force” because it sounds cool – as Trump himself has suggested was the rationale – is a disaster waiting to happen. To win such fights, a president needs buy-in from allies on Capitol Hill – from interest groups, political parties, and probably executive-branch nominees selected with specific policy goals in mind. 

(A quick aside: I happened to be rewatching “The Absent-Minded Professor” the other day; I had forgotten that there’s a subplot in it involving the old saw that the enemies the military services care most about are each other, and not foreign nations. One wouldn’t exactly have to be a scholar of the bureaucracy to know that they wouldn’t take well to an all-new Space Force.)

Anyway, Neustadt’s point here is that a president who develops a reputation for being easy to defeat will in fact become increasingly easy to defeat. So one thing that wise presidents do is avoid losing fights. If they do have to engage in them, they’ll try to keep their losses from being obvious to professional president-watchers, a group that includes by necessity virtually everyone who must deal with the president. (No, it doesn’t count to pretend you’re winning – see the Greg Sargent link below. Trump isn’t fooling anyone in Congress or on K Street or in the executive branch.)  

Although the office of the presidency itself is strong, any given occupant will struggle to get anything done unless his party or Congress or the bureaucracy really prioritizes it. We tend to attribute accomplishments to Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush. Yet a careful study of events will often show that presidents are usually only going along with what others wanted. Trump offers a pretty good example: Nearly every time he’s gone out on his own, he’s been defeated.

1. Julia Azari and Seth Masket on the Democratic primary debate rules. Good item. We’ll have to see how (or if) Democrats end up tightening the requirements.

2. Richard Skinner on why politicians don’t resign

3. Jacob Levy: “A serious post-Trump agenda requires a Republican commitment to democracy.”

4. Marcy Wheeler on the potential timing of Robert Mueller’s report.

5. Philip Klein, meanwhile, argues that any such report should be made public.

6. Perry Bacon Jr. on Senator Elizabeth Warren and the policy primary.

7. And Greg Sargent on Trump versus reality.

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