photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro, courtesy the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
There are 1,461 days in a president’s term. That’s not a lot of time when you consider how much effort it takes to win the Oval Office, and the number and gravity of the issues a commander in chief confronts after taking the oath.
Time in the White House is even more precious because Congress turns much of its attention to its own re-election prospects just a year or so after a new president takes office. The president, too, usually begins to worry about being re-elected at some point during the first term. Barack Obama reached this point around the time everyone went home from his inaugural ball.
Last week was a pivotal week in the early Trump presidency. His party’s efforts to overhaul the Affordable Care Act performed yet another Lazarus act, rising from the Senate’s procedural graveyard. On the other side of the Capitol, the House was teeing up tax reform.
Bubbling not far below the surface were the myriad concerns involving North Korea, China, the Middle East, NATO and its response to Russian aggression, immigration, regulation and the president’s overarching goal to “make America great again” as he defines it.
So where did the president focus his attention?
First, on making his own attorney general miserable, apparently in an attempt to get Jeff Sessions to resign rather than just firing him outright. And then on announcing that the military would no longer accept transgender individuals for our country’s all-volunteer armed services.
The assault on Sessions was misguided; the attack on prospective (or, due to characteristic Trump vagueness, possibly current) transgender military members is utterly unwarranted. Besides being wrong on the merits, both are far afield from anything remotely connected with Trump’s key objectives.
The president is understandably frustrated with the endless and largely specious attention to supposed collusion between his campaign and Russia. He is galled by the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor who, like most of his predecessors, apparently believes he possesses a Javert-like mandate to pursue any and all hypothetical wrongdoing until the earlier of a funding cutoff or the end of the universe. Trump wrongly attributes Mueller’s appointment to Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from any investigation of Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign. Picking on Sessions, who was one of his earliest and most loyal supporters – and who gave up a Senate seat to serve in this administration – is the presidential equivalent of coming home after a bad day at the office and kicking the cat.
Trump’s ban on transgender military members makes even less sense. His policy announcement addresses a problem that doesn’t exist; our military is operating just fine, apart from its budgeting and mission-clarity issues. The proper response when someone wants to put his or her life on the line for America is to say “Thank you – and please accept this upgraded airline seat and use all the overhead bin space you need.”
At his best, Trump hears people who otherwise feel unheard. People whose loved ones have been victimized by individuals who should not have been present in this country, or whose families and communities are decimated by economic decline and whose industries are targeted for extinction by Democrats. Trump breaks a lot of society’s rules for proper political and social discourse, but his supporters tend to look past his precise words, instead focusing on what they believe he means and on the things he actually does. They may hear a man who speaks and sometimes acts crudely toward women, for example, but they see one who was quick to promote them to positions of responsibility in the construction industry when it was still a male domain.
Another of Trump’s strengths is that he cut into the Republican death-dance with the religious right. He has no record of either particularly caring about issues of gender identity or being actively hostile to the LGBT community. In many ways, it was easier for Republicans like me – fiscally conservative but socially liberal – to vote for Trump than it would have been to vote for a Ted Cruz, or certainly a Mike Huckabee. We might have voted for those other Republicans anyway given the alternatives, but we wouldn’t have liked it. Trump made the Republican tent a little larger. Not that it gained him even an ounce of credit with most of the gay community, which reviled him from the start of his candidacy, if not before.
So what presidential purpose did it serve to single out transgender men and women for exclusion from our military service? Only Trump knows, if anyone does, which is not a bet I’d take. But assuming there was any logic to the move, why would he choose to raise that issue in a week when so many other things of so much greater importance were happening?
There was always a risk that Trump would behave as president like a child in dire need of a Ritalin prescription. He was an undisciplined campaigner, and as the CEO of a large private company, he is accustomed to operating with hardly any constraints on his behavior. He might waste a lot of time and resources going down blind alleys, but he also got a lot done. A Trump failure is certainly possible but not inevitable.
These early days of a presidency are few and dear. Trump is already handicapped by an undermanned administration and a bureaucracy largely hostile to him and his agenda. He can’t afford even reasonable distractions. His performance last week was one of his worst yet. If there are many more like it, Trump’s presidency is unlikely to last beyond 1,461 days, and even those will be less fruitful than they ought to be.