WASHINGTON -- President Trump’s most urgent political problem doesn’t involve Robert Mueller, Stormy Daniels, Vladimir Putin or the hundreds of thousands of voters who marched for gun control. Rather, it’s that his diehard supporters might be starting to realize how thoroughly he has played them for suckers.
On immigration, the issue that most viscerally connects the president with his thus-far-loyal base, Trump got basically nothing in the $1.3 trillion spending bill he signed Friday.
The vaunted “big, beautiful wall” he pledges to build along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico? Trump got 25 miles’ worth of new wall, along with eight miles of new fencing. And the bill specifies that none of this tiny increment can be built using any of the prototype designs Trump so ostentatiously showed off.
The threatened punishment for “sanctuary cities” that show compassion for undocumented immigrants? Not in there. The money to hire 1,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents? Trump got enough for just 100, with the proviso that they all be administrative and support personnel working in offices, not in the field. The 20 percent increase in funding for detention centers that Trump asked for? Congress not only refused to authorize an extra penny, but went so far as to rebuke ICE for overspending its current detention budget.
The results sent conservative pundit Ann Coulter into paroxysms on Twitter, flying uncontrollably into all-caps mode. One tweet read simply: “CONGRATULATIONS, PRESIDENT SCHUMER!”
Coulter referred, of course, to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and indeed this spending bill in many ways reflected Democratic spending priorities more than Republican. Think of it this way: If I told you that the president just signed spending legislation that funds Planned Parenthood but not a border wall, you might wonder for a moment if Barack Obama were still president and this whole ridiculous Donald Trump thing had been just a long, profoundly disturbing dream.
Sadly, it’s real. But aside from his business-friendly tax cut and deregulation policies, Trump has offered little more than symbolic crumbs to his red-meat base. As Coulter wrote in a column: “If you’re a Trump voter, you’re scratching your head wondering what happened to those campaign promises that set him apart from every other Republican.”
Trump obviously didn’t actually mean much of the crazy stuff he said during his campaign, but his racism and xenophobia did seem sincere. On immigration, it’s probably the sheer incompetence of the Trump White House that has caused the president to go back on his word.
On the question of national security, Trump drew cheers at his rallies when he blasted prior administrations for miring us in long-running wars that had drained the country of trillions of dollars without making us any safer. He promised an “America first” foreign policy that ended attempts at nation-building abroad and instead focused resources and attention on domestic concerns.
Yet last week he boasted of having hiked defense spending to record levels. Trump has sent additional troops to Afghanistan and plunged the U.S. military into the Syrian civil war. And as his new national security adviser he is hiring John Bolton, a super-hawk you might remember from the George W. Bush administration. Bolton is the guy with the Yosemite Sam moustache who led the cheers for the Iraq war, saying “we are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction.”
Trump has brutally ridiculed the architects of that war, so he and Bolton will have a lot to talk about. Better that they focus on the past than on the present, because Bolton appears determined to foment dangerous and ill-advised crises with both Iran and North Korea -- perhaps at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in a MAGA hat holding up a sign that says, “Start two more wars!”
Trump clearly sees the political peril. He briefly threatened not to sign the spending bill, then caved and signed it, then vowed in a tweet that “I will NEVER sign another bill like this again.” To prevent a recurrence, he has demanded that Congress give him a line-item veto on spending bills and eliminate the Senate’s filibuster rule -- neither of which is going to happen. So he will surely be presented with such legislation again.
There’s something Trump is as eager to hide as any entanglements with Russians and porn stars: The man who gave us “The Art of the Deal” couldn’t get Congress to approve a resolution supporting Mother’s Day. Even if he brought flowers.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.