Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States. Oh sure, he has the title and he has the bully pulpit – from which he’s bullying everyone from NBA players to people protesting white supremacists to DACA kids. But he’s not actively governing the United States. That work is happening elsewhere – in Congress, the courts, the Fed, the career civil service, lobbyists, and in the states. Or it’s not happening at all.
It’s not just that Trump lost the epic battle to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Trump never understood the Affordable Care Act to begin with, and played no part in developing Republican alternatives.
The budget Trump submitted to Congress in March was dead on arrival. House Republicans ignored Trump’s request for $54 billion in cuts to departments and agencies and decided instead to cut non-defense spending by just $5 billion, and explode the defense budget.
The 9-page tax plan congressional Republicans and Trump unveiled last week only vaguely resembles Trump’s original tax proposal from April, and all the important decisions have been left to the tax-writing committees of Congress.
Trump’s relations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have become so strained they have no interest in looping him into policies before they have to.
Meanwhile, Trump has run out of Obama executive orders he can declare void. Major regulations, such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, can’t just be repealed. They have to go through a legal process that could take years. Trump doesn’t seem to be aware of this. He told a cheering crowd in Alabama recently that he had ended the Clean Power Plan by executive order. “Did you see what I did to that? Boom, gone.”
Wrong. The EPA will soon reveal its strategy for reversing the Plan, but whatever it is, environmental groups are almost certain to appeal it in the courts. Big businesses and utilities, fearing that the courts may rule against the administration, are lobbying the EPA to come up with a replacement rather than try to eliminate the Plan altogether.
Meanwhile, although General John Kelly has reduced White House chaos somewhat, the firings and shakeups are unremitting.
Trump’s Cabinet secretaries don’t seem to have a clue. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos still wants to spend taxpayer money on for-profit schools and colleges that cheat their students. Won’t happen. The EPA’s Scott Pruitt is trying to strip the agency of scientists. Another brainless scheme.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin still has no idea how to deal with Congress. He tried to persuade Republican House members to support Trump’s budget deal with the Democrats by asking them to do it “for me.” Health and Human Service Secretary Tom Price wasn’t fired for his ethical breaches. If ethics were the criteria, most of the Trump administration would be gone. Price broke Trump’s cardinal rule, which was never to get bad headlines for Trump.
Top echelons of departments and agencies are still empty. Trump has said “in many cases, we don’t want to fill those jobs,” which means decisions are being made by career civil servants and industry lobbyists. By the start of September, more than a third of the leadership positions at the Federal Emergency Management Agency were still vacant. Not a good way to begin hurricane season. Puerto Rico, anyone? As of mid-September, out of 599 key government positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump had made only 159 nominations, according to The Washington Post. Trump had yet to submit nominations for 320 positions.
Trump’s political clout is waning among Republicans. He couldn’t even get his pick elected to a Senate primary in Alabama, a state bulging with Trump voters. Business leaders have deserted him over his remarks over Charlottesville. NFL owners have turned on him over his remarks about players. Tom Brady, who once called Trump “a good friend,” now calls him “divisive” and “wrong.”
Don’t get me wrong. Trump is still a dangerous showman and conman – tweeting condemnations of critics and ranting before friendly crowds at his never-ending campaign rallies. He continues to fuel bigotry and meanness. He has reduced America’s standing in the world. His outbursts could start a nuclear war.
But when it comes to the actual work of governing America, Trump is becoming utterly and completely irrelevant.