Trump waits for fall-out as he plays with fire at home
PAUL CONNEW on the US president
The word out of the White House is that Donald Trump considers Boris Johnson has 'something of the clown' about him. A viewpoint that their fairly brief encounter at the UN in New York this week did little to dispel apparently.
The temptation is to dismiss one flaxen-haired egomaniac clown describing another that way as beyond satire, of course. But not now, perhaps, as both men continue to confound political norms and plunge their own parties into increased paranoia and disarray.
If Bojo's naked ambition has stretched Theresa May's gossamer-thin grip on authority to breaking point, The Donald is doing something similar to the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill while risking severing his own grip on his core support base in the process.
In the case of Boris, few doubt the real motive behind that extraordinary faux Churchillian 4,000-word Telegraph opus on Brexit. Namely, Boris's obsession with emulating his political hero, occupying Number Ten and leading Britain through its most critical, history-shaping battle since 1940.
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In the case of Trump, he's already achieved the highest elected office his country can offer and landed the lead role of the most powerful man on earth. But if Boris's motives are transparent, The Donald's remain elusive and that is trapping the usual suspects among both his natural supporters and natural enemies in a gigantic guessing game unprecedented in modern US political history.
Last week this column predicted that POTUS was set to infuriate the Republican leadership by performing a U-turn and striking a deal with the Democrats to lift the threat of deportation for 800,000 'Dreamers', the people who entered the US illegally as children. (The New European was barely on the news stands when Trump apparently did just that over a Chinese meal with the two leading Democrats on Capitol Hill, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Red and white wine flowed for Chuck and Nancy while teetotal Donald stuck to the Diet Coke). Not only that, but Trump was swiftly tweeting about 'further co-operation' and using the B-word: Bi-partisan.
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'The press has been incredible,' the president boasted, with man-child excitement, to Pelosi and Schumer after their deal in principle garnered largely positive media coverage from the very news organisations he usually brands 'fake news'. (But among Alt-Right voices, including Breitbart News and some Fox News commentators, it not only sparked personal condemnation of The Donald, but raised fears his whole 'Fake News' strategy against media critics would be undermined in future).
Breitbart News, headed by Trump's ousted strategy chief and election victory mastermind Steve Bannon, took a break from mocking the Republican leadership to turn on the president personally and brand him: 'Amnesty Don'. While the conservative TV commentator and longstanding, passionate Trump champion, Ann Coulter, tweeted: 'At this point, who DOESN'T want Trump impeached?'
Iowa Republican congressman Steve King's tweeted reaction to POTUS's White House dinner pact with Pelosi and Schumer echoed right-wing fury when he insisted: 'Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.'
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, weighed in with: 'We're very, very concerned. What we're hearing after Trump's meetings with Schumer and Pelosi is exactly what we'd have expected to hear if Hillary Clinton had been elected president and not Donald Trump.' She added that, having won the White House on a 'drain-the-Washington-establishment-swamp' platform, Trump is now being 'sucked in' by it. 'My concern is that The Swamp knows how to play the game and knows how to get what it wants.'
Many right-wing Republicans and Alt-Right platforms increasingly target the Kushners (Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner) as significant influences on his move to court Capitol Hill's Democrat leaders. Both are portrayed as 'Democrats at heart' – a viewpoint known to be shared by Bannon and his acolytes and investors.
Across social media, too, it triggered hostile reactions with former 'loyalists' even posting images of themselves burning Trump posters, 'Make America Great Again' hats and other assorted mementoes online.
Right-wing social media was also full of debate over points The New European focused on last week; that Trump has switched his political allegiance five times over the years and even contributed funds to Hillary Clinton's campaign (when she ran against Obama for the Democratic nomination). In the past he also contributed to the congressional campaigns of Schumer and Pelosi.
Last week, too, this column revealed that the Trump 2020 re-election campaign team, operating out of an office suite in New York's Trump Tower, are working on a 'contingency plan' for The Donald to possibly run as an independent rather than the official Republican ticket. Even some senior Republican Capitol Hill figures who had previously scoffed at that idea, this week told me they now regard it as 'no longer out of the ball park'.
But bipartisan is fast becoming something of a dirty word in US politics. And if there is one thing uniting both left and right, it is a an overriding sense of shock and suspicion surrounding whatever it is Trump is up to.
Does he even have a master plan, a strategy? Or is he the ultimate narcissist without any coherent ideological compass and motivated purely by whatever imperious impulse or flattery or craving for favourable headlines takes his fancy in the moment?
But if the Republican right is – for the moment at least – consumed by confused feelings of betrayal, the Democrats are in danger of being split badly over how to deal with an unpredictable, out of character POTUS playing the bipartisan card.
After that deal in principle on the 'Dreamers', which followed Trump's pact with the Democrats over lifting the debt ceiling and securing post-hurricane relief funding, Democrat Senate leader Chuck Schumer gushed: 'He likes us …he likes me, anyway', before offering up this rationale: 'Here's what I told him: I said, 'Mr President, you're much better off if you can sometimes step right and sometimes step left. If you have to step just in one direction, you're boxed'. He gets that.'
Now, if you were talking a less mercurial president in normal political times, such euphoric mood music would strike the right note among many Democrats. But Schumer's elation got a decidedly mixed reception among many in his own party – particularly on the left and among the young activists who campaigned for Bernie Sanders in last year's presidential nomination contest.
Norman Solomon, a Californian delegate for Sanders last year, captured their feelings when he cited 'huge dangers in the current bipartisan foreplay' and argued: 'Trump is holding so many odious policies it's tempting to rejoice when, once in a while, he loosens his grip on one or another. The problem is Trump is an expert at praising people and then shafting them….If Democrats want to oppose Trump as the heartless corporate monster that he is, then making nice with him in photo-ops and boasting that he likes you isn't good groundwork for winning working class votes in the next few years.'
Those Democrats enthused by signs of a new 'bipartisan' approach by Trump point out that the Daca (Deferred Action for Child Arrivals) agreement boost for the 'Dreamers' (which will still need to get by Congress) doesn't require them to back Trump's Mexican Wall project.
But Democrat sceptics hit back that the indicators out of that White House tête-à-tête with Schumer and Pelosi suggest that the president in turn won concessions to support other aspects of his tough immigration and border control policies, short of supporting the Wall itself.
'Schumer and Pelosi often tend to be out of touch with the zeitgeist of the progressive movement,' warned Murshed Zaheed, political director of the CREDO Action Liberal group. 'There will be fierce blowback if our base priorities are traded away in any agreements with Trump.'
It is a mainstream concern in the Democrat party that they could stand to lose more than Trump from striking well-intentioned, bipartisan pacts such as over The Dreamers issue. One put it this way: 'In one sense we and Trump are playing the same gambling game. Will more of our supporters or more of his view bipartisan deals and compromises as pragmatic common sense or unforgivable sell-outs?
Polls still show that Trump is holding onto his hardcore Republican support base, even if he is losing them elsewhere. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicated 98% of Republicans who voted for him in the 2016 party primaries still support him. The events of the last couple of weeks may well dent that, but by how much is the big question.
Democrat strategists are also concerned that the headline-hitting, fierce fallout between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ignited by her memoir What Happened could linger on long enough to have a negative impact on the party's mid-term election prospects next year. And Capitol Hill Democrats are alert to whispers that Republican leaders believe they are now close to mustering enough votes to revive Trump's hugely controversial flagship Obamacare Repeal Bill.
The failure to deliver it not only triggered the president's humiliating public mockery of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, but – they suspect – was a key factor in POTUS's decision to begin wooing the Democrats. But for the Democrats any significant concessions to Trump on health care would be toxic for much of their own support base.
TAKING AIM AT ROCKET MAN
It was a speech delivered at the United Nations to the assembled United Nations' delegates but its real target audience was one nation. The 'America First' nation. This was President Donald Trump back wearing his ultra-nationalist hat and seeking to reassure those voters who put him in the White House but who have become alarmed by his bipartisan deals with Democrats and his move away from the 'isolationist' platform on which he campaigned.
Note the words 'sovereign' and 'sovereignty' popped up TWENTY ONE times in a 40-minute address that was like nothing any previous American president has delivered at the UN. At times it echoed George W Bush's post-9/11 'Axis of Evil' speech, but that was delivered in desperate circumstances and on a domestic platform, not the UN General Assembly.
Beforehand some White House aides had promised a 'deeply philosophical address' that would explain 'how America fits into the world, how it operates, what its values are'. Instead we got something that more often resembled an elongated version of a typical Trumpian Twitter rant.
'Rocket Man' – the nickname The Donald is so proud of generating on Twitter (where else) to describe Kim Jong-un – took centre stage, along with the bellicose threat to 'totally destroy' North Korea if it dared to attack the US or its allies. (Using the 'Rocket Man' tag at the UN was something National Security Adviser General HR McMaster had advised him against, but POTUS went ahead anyway, knowing it would dominate the global media coverage).
'Principled realism' cropped up too. A line first scripted for Trump by White House adviser Stephen Miller during his controversial visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Indeed the fingerprints of Miller, the virulently anti-immigrant Svengali and last survivor of the Steve Bannon cadre in the West Wing, were all over the president's debut UN address.
The vision of some new world order where 'strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect', was straight out of the Miller/Bannon playbook. So, too, was 'the nation state… as the best vehicle for elevating the human condition'.
Quite how that fits with the bombastic, menacing tone of his rhetoric aimed at North Korea, Iran and Venezuela is another matter. But incoherence and inconsistency – even when he tried to play the pragmatist – were stamped all over a speech that played badly around the world, bar Saudi Arabia and Israel.
It certainly didn't play well inside the UN, either, with muted applause and with several delegates shaking their heads or grimacing on-camera.
Not that POTUS will be too upset by that. It's how it plays across the American heartlands that put him into the White House that matters far more to him now. The Donald will be waiting nervously for the first opinion poll judgements.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor who met and interviewed Donald Trump several times.
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