President Trump rose to power on a combination of meanness, incoherence and falsehoods. His strategy depended almost entirely on playing off the unpopularity and weaknesses of others.
Every aspect of his approach has blown up on him since he took office, but as is always the case with Trump, he will not take any personal responsibility for what’s going wrong. He must find a scapegoat. The latest object of his opprobrium would seem to be Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist.
But dumping Bannon would only underscore the extent to which Trump is a political weathervane, gyrating wildly with the political winds. He’s “populist” one day, conventionally conservative the next, and centrist the day after that. His implicit response is: Who cares? Let’s just get through another week.
At the moment, he is basking in praise from large parts of the foreign policy establishment for his decision to fire missiles into Syria. This is the hour of maximum danger for Bannon. Trump may now figure he should ride for a while with his newfound friends in the elite. The presence of the disheveled ultra-nationalist Bannon just won’t do at the tony country club party Trump wants to throw for himself.
And so Trump, in an interview with The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin, did to Bannon what he has done to everyone else: He offered an entirely misleading account of their relationship.
“I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
Hmm. Contrary to Trump’s claim, he has known Bannon since 2011 and appeared nine times on Bannon’s radio show. Just a few months ago, Bannon was cast as the political genius who saw the electoral potential in the Midwestern swing states. But with Trump, every good idea is his idea and every failure belongs to someone else, so Bannon is now an afterthought.
The weathervane will twirl again soon because Trump faces renewed trouble, on an old front and a new one.
Trump has gone to great lengths – including lying about former President Obama having his “wires tapped” – to distract from inquiries into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia’s effort to subvert the 2016 election.
But Tuesday brought a reminder that the story won’t go away until it’s resolved. The Washington Post reported that the FBI obtained an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor the communications of the man Trump once listed as a foreign policy adviser, Carter Page. (Trump has since downgraded Page’s role to “low-level.”) The news was an indication of the seriousness of the investigation of links between Trump’s campaign and Russia. While Trump hopes that his administration’s complete about-face on Vladimir Putin – from fawning praise to hostility – will settle the matter, it won’t.
And then the good people of Kansas’ 4th Congressional District cast ballots in a special election on Tuesday. While Republican Ron Estes hung onto the seat over Democrat James Thompson, Estes’ 6.8 percent margin was anemic in comparison with Trump’s 27-point win in the district last year. And Republican Dan Pompeo, whose appointment as Trump’s CIA director created the opening, was re-elected last year by a margin of 31 percent.
This swing will petrify Republicans in Congress who, up to now, have largely stayed in line behind Trump. It’s also likely to give additional spine to Trump’s GOP critics, both on the far right and among politicians closer to the center.
The energy in politics is now clearly on the anti-Trump side. Republicans will surely notice the sharp falloff in loyalist turnout in Republican bastions. Last year, for example, Trump carried Harper County, south of Wichita, with 1,996 votes to 393 for Clinton. Estes could manage only 837 votes there, to 307 for Thompson. And energized Democrats swung big Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, from Trump to Thompson.
As Trump’s comments to Goodwin showed, he still longs to run against “crooked Hillary.” He also still loves to bash Obama. But Trump is on his own, with only his own record to answer for. He can let go of Bannon and anyone else he wants to blame for the chaos of his presidency. But governing is hard, especially when your principles are as flexible as your relationship with the truth.
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.