Attorney General Jeff Sessions showed up unannounced in the White House briefing room to attempt something President Trump very much needed after Friday’s health care debacle: a change of subject.
Sessions, accompanied by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, revived one of the reliable applause lines from the campaign, a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” harboring illegal immigrants. “DUIs, assaults, burglaries, drug crimes, gang rapes, crimes against children and murders,” the attorney general recited. “Countless Americans would be alive today and countless loved ones would not be grieving today if these policies of sanctuary cities were ended.”
But for all the Sturm und Drang, Sessions didn’t have much to announce.
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“Sounds like you’re applying the standards and the policy that the Obama administration put forward,” CBS News’ Major Garrett observed when Sessions finished his statement. “Are you taking any additional steps?”
“Well, that’s a good question,” Sessions replied. And the answer, apparently, is “no.” Sessions said there could be additional requirements “in the future” beyond those the Obama administration had. But not just yet.
Such policy anticlimaxes are becoming routine in Trump’s world. Tough rhetoric, big promises – and no substance. Trump looks more and more like a man without a plan.
He promised he would have a health care plan that would be cheaper and better than Obamacare and would cover just as many. But when it came time to deliver, he had nothing. He left the policy to House Speaker Paul Ryan, and the resulting proposal would have meant 24 million fewer people with health coverage. The bill collapsed in spectacular fashion under opposition from Democrats, moderate Republicans and conservatives – and Trump is blaming everybody but himself.
During the campaign, he said he had a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State. Now, it turns out, he has no plan. He has asked the Pentagon to create one. “We will figure something out,” he said last week.
Vowing to keep Americans safe at home, he originally promised “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” before tempering that campaign promise to the restricting of travelers from certain countries. But since administration lawyers tried to put that vague notion into an actual policy, his attempts at imposing a “travel ban” have been repeatedly shot down in court.
Next up after the health care failure is Trump’s promise to enact “historic” tax reform. But now that it’s time to present a policy, the promise looks more histrionic than historic. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he wants to have legislation in August, but Spicer on Monday was backpedaling.
“I know that Secretary Mnuchin has talked about August as a target date, and I think it depends,” Spicer said in response to a question from Alexis Simendinger from RealClearPolitics. He added that “this is going to be dependent on whether, how, the degree to which we can come to consensus on a lot of big issues.” And he concluded: “So, you know, we’re not – we’re not there yet.”
During the campaign, Trump boldly vowed that he would eliminate the U.S. debt, now about $20 trillion, during his term. He then said he would cut the debt in half. But when CNBC’s Eamon Javers asked whether Trump would allow tax reform to add to the deficit (and therefore the debt), Spicer said it was “really early” to be raising such questions. “You’re asking really early in the process to make that kind of analysis before we have a policy set forth,” he protested.
How presumptuous to expect Trump, after campaigning on historic tax reform, actually to have a proposal!
The emerging evidence that Trump doesn’t have a plan for much of anything isn’t entirely bad. No plan is better than a bad plan. In theory, at least, this means Trump could change course.
And Spicer, expanding on remarks Trump made after the health care bill collapsed Friday, said the president was ready to work with Democrats. “There may be other opportunities to work with people across the aisle,” he said, later adding that “if Democrats want to join in, then that’s great and we’ll do that.”
ABC News’ Jonathan Karl noted that such behavior would “require a serious change of course for the president.”
“To some degree, sure,” Spicer readily replied.
But Trump has never demonstrated an ability to change, and even if he could, some of his top advisers would resist him, many Republicans in Congress would revolt, and Trump’s supporters would be furious.
Having actual policies may just not be part of this president’s plan.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.