Even though Donald Trump often appears to be out of control, he’s executing a disciplined political strategy to tighten his grip on the Republican base. Nonetheless, to hold onto power, Trump’s going to have to move beyond his base. To accomplish this, he’s working on his biggest deal.
While Trump’s favorability ratings continue to decline, he remains popular with his base — around 80 percent of Republicans approve of his conduct. Trump once joked that he could “stand in the middle of 5th avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters.” This has held true for his first 223 days in office.
Trump’s recent actions — his ad-libs about the Charlottesville violence, his transgender ban, and his pardon of Sheriff Arpaio — are viewed negatively by most Americans but approved by mainstream by Republicans. Indeed, within the GOP, Trump is much more popular than the congressional leadership, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump has a parasitic relationship with the orthodox Republican Party. He uses their organization but he’s not wedded to their principles; Trump is a maverick Independent using the Republican Party infrastructure.
During the presidential campaign, Trump made a number of promises; the most general was to “make America great again,” and the most specific was to build a wall along the southern border. At the moment, given his general unpopularity and his lack of support from both sides of Congress, it’s hard to imagine how he would keep his promise to build the wall.
Nonetheless, Trump has recently talked about a spectacular “deal,” threatening to shut down government unless Congress allocates funds for his border wall. This sort of high-stakes gamble is right out of Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal,” where he describes eleven tactics: “Think big; Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself; Maximize your options; Know your market; Use your leverage; Enhance your location; Get the word out; Fight Back; Deliver the goods; Contain the costs; Have fun.”
In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump emphasizes the way to get the deal you want is to leverage your power: “Start from a position of strength and convince the other side that you have something they need.”
Although Trump is President, at the moment he doesn’t have a lot of leverage with Congress. Most members don’t like him. In addition, Trump has a weak staff and, therefore, the White House isn’t presenting Congress with coherent legislative plans. While Trump isn’t viewed as a leader, that doesn’t mean he has no power. For example, he can decide to veto legislation (and pardon convicted offenders).
On August 22nd, at a Phoenix campaign rally, Trump said, “If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall… One way or the other, we’re going to get that wall.” In September there will be a chance for Trump to shut down the government when he receives the 2018 (fiscal year) appropriations bill. If it does not contain money for the construction of a border wall then Trump could chose to veto it; the government would run out of money on September 30th and many governmental operations would shut down on October 1st.
The orthodox Republican agenda for September is for Trump to quickly sign the appropriations bill and an increase to the debt ceiling, and for the GOP to then focus on tax reform. However, Trump is not an orthodox Republican. According to New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza (https://www.newyorker.com/news/ryan-lizza/will-trump-shut-down-the-government) “Trump has never really been excited about the traditional Republican agenda on tax reform.” It certainly has not been a primary component of his base appeal.
If Trump does veto the appropriations bill, Lizza says there are three logical outcomes: One would be “a grand compromise” where Congress would allocate additional funds for the wall and the shutdown would be avoided. There are two problems with this scenario; one is the amount of money involved. It’s estimated the wall would cost $21.6 billion (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/02/10/the-initial-estimate-is-here-trumps-wall-will-cost-more-than-a-year-of-the-space-program/?utm_term=.00bf35a891d6); Trump’s initial budget allocation — for wall planning and design — is $2.6 billion. The other problem is that a compromise would require Democratic votes as well as Republican votes; congressional Democrats have long indicated they would not sign an appropriations bill that includes funds for Trump’s wall. (There’s also a complication because of funding for the recovery from Hurricane Harvey.)
Another possible outcome after a Trump veto is that Republicans would go through a face-saving process: Perhaps the House would pass an appropriations bill that includes funds for the wall. Then the Senate would strip them out. Trump would sign the (neutered) appropriations bill and blame Senate Republicans.
And, of course there is the possibility that Trump would stick to his guns and cause the government to shut down.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey opens another possibility: Trump would tie funds for his wall to an appropriation for flood recovery in Texas and Louisiana. This might pass the House but could flounder in the Senate because of it would require 60 votes.
In any event, September is a watershed month for Trump. He’s running out of runway. To increase his power he’s going to have to pull off a big deal.