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U.S. President Donald Trump returns to the Oval Office at the White House after his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, U.S. February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC1758728C90
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Is President Trump irrelevant?

A pretty amazing thing happened this past  week: Congress started to do its job again. Faced with the prospect of yet another government shutdown, they did something that used to be pretty commonplace—they compromised.

And where was the president? Nowhere.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Shumer (D-N.Y.) put together a deal that increased spending on defense, a priority for the Republican Congress, and increased spending on key domestic programs like CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program), a priority for the Democrats. In the process, they again raised the spending caps that have frustrated everyone since they were enacted in 2011.

The leaders of both chambers appeared to agree to take up the thorny topic of immigration reform in a straightforward manner—sort of like they used to operate in the old days, with both sides allowed to debate and to make amendments. Regular order—an earlier, more open way of doing business where the minority is allowed to make amendments, where there is debate on the floor, and where the bill actually gets shown to everyone more than ten minutes before the vote—seems to be making a comeback.

Why the shift? My guess is that Congress has given up on Donald Trump. It took a year, but Washington is now realizing that it has an infotainment president, not a real one. After the last short-lived government shutdown, I wondered in these pages: “Are we entering a period in history, not unlike the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression, when presidents were relatively weak and Congress ran the show?”

Two weeks later, the answer seems to be yes.

Donald Trump is becoming irrelevant. According to The New York Times, on Tuesday of this week, the president said, “I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this [immigration] stuff taken care of,” at a meeting with lawmakers and law enforcement officials. “If we have to shut it down because the Democrats don’t want safety,” he added, “then shut it down.”

Meanwhile the House and the Senate were putting together a massive, two-year budget deal that passed early Friday morning without dealing with immigration at all. What was the Trump White House doing? They were bumbling through the latest in a series of scandals, the fact that a high-level staffer had been accused of beating not one, but two former wives plus a girlfriend—allegations that John Kelly knew about, but seems not to have investigated.

Trump’s irrelevancy has been building all year. Ironically, while Congress was still waiting for presidential leadership, his own appointees were “clarifying” (another word for “ignoring”) the President’s statements almost from the get-go. Let’s look at just a few examples.

  • On NATO: During the campaign, Trump consistently complained about how our NATO allies were not carrying their fair share of the financial burden. But at the Munich Security Conference last year, his new foreign policy team went out of its way to reassure NATO Allies that the U.S. would stand by Article 5, only to have to do it again later in the year after the President unexpectedly cut the customary reassurance from his speech in Brussels.
  • On July 26, 2017, President Trump tweeted that the military would no longer allow transgender men and women to serve. The tweet managed to divert some attention from the fact that the FBI had raided his former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s home. And it was an explicit reversal of policy developed during the Obama administration and one tailor-made to please Trump’s most ardent supporters. The Pentagon, however, rather than implement the supposed policy, maintained the status quo while convening a “panel of experts” to examine the issue. Commandant Paul Zukunft said outright that he would “not break faith” with transgender people serving in the Coast Guard.
  • On October 3, after surveying extensive hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, Trump said: “We have to look at their whole debt structure. … They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street. We’re going to have to wipe that out.” A day later OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said, “We are not going to bail them out. […] We are not going to pay off those debts. We are not going to bail out those bond holders.”
  • The President’s national security team has also contradicted the President on the Iran deal, which Trump has complained about vociferously. When Senator Angus King (I-Maine) asked Defense Secretary James Mattis, “Do you believe it’s in our national security interest at the present time to remain in the JCPOA [Iran nuclear deal]? That is a yes-or-no question.” Mattis answered: “Yes, senator, I do.” At the same October 3, 2017 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford stated, “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement, and I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.” So much for the worst deal ever.

If Trump has been irrelevant inside the executive branch for a year, Congress likely got the message on January 9, 2018. That’s when Trump held a 55-minute meeting, open to the press, with congressional leaders in an attempt to show that he could negotiate an immigration bill. But, from the opening moments, he proved exactly the opposite. He was all over the place, changing his mind, being corrected by Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and illustrating that he could not be trusted to even know what he wanted, let alone negotiate a bill.

Now, the next big test for congressional government looms. Can they pass an immigration bill in time to do something for the Dreamers? And will the President have any role at all, or will he continue his march towards irrelevancy?

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