Trump Strutted Like a Player, But Also Got Played

Anyone still clinging to the idea that Donald Trump is a crafty strategist who furthered his goals by corrupting everyone around him during an unspooled and vindictive presidency might want to consider, instead, that Trump himself was often gamed — at least when it comes to some of the signature policies that will define his administration.

To be sure, Trump unleashed torrents of dangerous vitriol that made it safe for his party and supporters to embrace racial, economic and cultural divisions more openly and enthusiastically. And Trump’s stagecraft was certainly sui generis, tethered to outre mythmaking and serial fabulism. But apart from propagating a cult of personality, Trump’s performance art rarely revolved around policy debates or goals. It just revolved around him.

On the policy frontier, where voters’ lives are shaped and institutions are remodeled, others were in charge. Those people most likely regarded Trump as a useful foil, someone easy to manipulate or outmaneuver if you had the stomach and patience for it. There are myriad examples, but for now let’s focus on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Attorney General William Barr and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell.

Each of those men embodies some traits needed to turn Trump into a sock puppet — or to simply keep him out of the way. They could be wily (McConnell, Barr, Powell), craven (McConnell, Barr) or courageous (Powell), but needed at least one of those attributes to achieve their goals. History will also probably judge each of them in proportion to how much their particular vices or virtues drove policy and procedure.

“At the risk of tooting my own horn, look at the majority leaders since L.B.J. and find another one who was able to do something as consequential as this,” McConnell, a history buff, told the New York Times after he rammed Justice Amy Coney Barrett onto the Supreme Court in October.

McConnell regards his conservative reshaping of the federal judiciary as his signature accomplishment, and his legacy goes well beyond the Supreme Court. He has pressed the Senate to confirm at least 229 federal court appointments during Trump’s presidency, and, for the first time in 40 years, hasn’t left a left a single vacancy on district and circuit courts — even if that has meant repopulating the judiciary with young, white men bearing threadbare resumes.

Trump didn’t have a sophisticated, informed view of the judiciary before becoming president. But he let McConnell transform such traditionally liberal venues as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals because the senator sustained him in other ways. McConnell ran interference when Trump was impeached. He helped court Trump’s incendiary political base. He kept to the shadows when Trump attacked the Black Lives Matter movement. He remained silent when Trump savaged the integrity of the presidential election.

McConnell, according to those close to him, held Trump in low regard but protected him anyway to feed his own political ambitions, further fuel his fundraising apparatus and go about dismantling the federal government. McConnell’s fealty and machinations came home to roost this year when Trump failed to effectively respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Senate was left so broken it appears unable to pass a second coronavirus relief package even though it has bipartisan support.

It’s not clear yet whether McConnell, content to wield power for power’s sake alone, will pay any penalties for cuddling with Trump. But there’s no question that he has spun the president like a top the last several years whenever one of his own goals was in play.

Then there’s Barr, who, when asked last year whether his ward-heeler’s advocacy for Trump has tainted his legacy and his reputation in the legal community, responded with trademark indifference: “I’m at the end of my career. … Everyone dies.”

Barr has been a longstanding proponent of an unrestrained imperial presidency, and those views took root long before he encountered Trump. But he went out of his way to audition for his Justice Department job because he undoubtedly saw Trump as a useful vehicle for furthering those aims.

Among other things, Barr helped Trump end-run Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, gave Trump the latitude to misuse federal force on U.S. streets, helped protect White House advisers on the wrong side of the law, knee-capped federal prosecutors investigating matters close to Trump and helped give early credence to Trump’s claims that the presidential election was rigged before later reversing himself.

Trump grew weary with Barr after the attorney general refused to rush a Justice Department probe of how law enforcement went about investigating the president, but Barr initiated the investigation to begin with because he shared Trump’s belief that the deep state was out to get him. Barr reportedly worked hard to make sure that a federal investigation into President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, was kept under wraps during the election, but one wonders, given Barr’s record, how the investigation was started in the first place.

Trump harbored authoritarian designs well before he intersected with Barr, but it’s Barr who tried to build a throne for the president — and taught Trump how to go about it.

Powell, inhabiting the wonky and cloistered confines of the Federal Reserve, is the brighter tale here. An articulate, compassionate and relatively soft-spoken member of Trumplandia, Powell runs a financially powerful institution that Trump has repeatedly tried to strong-arm during his presidency. “Who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman Xi?” Trump once asked.

Powell endured all of this with great calm and confidence, managing to win plaudits as one of the best Fed leaders of the modern era. He’s also been directly responsible for helping the U.S. economy weather the Covid-19 pandemic. He’s well aware that the Federal Reserve Act is meant to protect his independence from the White House, and he’s demonstrated repeated bravery charting his own course despite Trump’s interference.

Asked during a congressional hearing if he’d pack up and leave if Trump tried to fire him, Powell said three times that he wouldn’t. “The law clearly gives me a four-year term, and I intend to serve it,” he responded.

Trump pressured Powell to adopt rate cuts that would stoke the economy in the short run, but Powell largely made such calls on the merits. He also became one of the strongest voices in the government for using federal powers to support the financial well-being of average workers and the lives and livelihoods of those bowled over by the pandemic. To get there, he essentially ignored Trump — and expanded the Fed’s mandate and mission along the way.

Powell’s tenure is a reminder that Trump can’t corrupt people willy-nilly. They have to be primed for it beforehand. And bad things didn’t happen during Trump’s time in office because he landed in Washington with a fully realized plan. Bad outcomes took root because Trump was surrounded by bad actors, some of whom knew exactly how to play him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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