This weekend was our umpteenth reminder that the core of Donald Trump's political strategy is exacerbating cultural conflict to distract from his policies and results.
The provocation was almost childish in its transparency. Mere weeks after choosing, at a rally, to reawaken conflict over the NFL’s protests, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to a NFL game where a protest was inevitable, with explicit instructions to walk out the moment the players took their knee. Pence did as he was told, and we in the media did as we were told: swarming to cover the Trump administration’s latest mortar attack against our attention spans. Just to make sure there was no mistaking whose plan this was, Trump tweeted that it was his idea:
This is, in other words, the distraction Trump wants. Which raises the question: What conversations is he trying to distract us from?
Well, there’s the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, which the Trump administration mismanaged from the outset and is now trying to hide by pushing out weird propaganda videos and ceasing to report the number of Puerto Ricans with access to power and clean drinking water. (Those reports were restored after ferocious criticism: The current percentages are 11.7 and 59.5, for the record.)
There’s the ongoing failure of the administration’s legislative agenda. Ten months after Trump took office, he has precisely no major legislation to show for it, and none seems forthcoming. The effort to repeal and replace Obamacare was an embarrassing failure, and tax reform is embattled, to say the least. (For comparison, at this point in his presidency, Barack Obama had signed into law the stimulus, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Ted Kennedy’s Serve America Act, a major expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, legislation protecting 2 million new acres of public lands, and a vast suite of new regulations on tobacco sales, and he was well on his way to signing the Affordable Care Act into law.)
There are also the ongoing scandals distracting, embarrassing, and perhaps imperiling the White House. Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign after chartering private jets on the taxpayers’ credit card, and an explosive report came out alleging Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump had bought themselves out of past legal trouble. Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to grind away in the background, as does the Senate Intelligence Committee’s inquiry — last week, the committee’s Republican chair, Sen. Richard Burr, made clear that "the issue of collusion" between the Trump campaign and Moscow "is still open.”
Last week was also the week that Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was forced to hold a press conference not quite denying that he had called Trump “a fucking moron.” Nor is it just Tillerson who is believed to be eyeing the door. Axios’s Mike Allen reports that he “cannot stress enough how many essential staff and officials want out — if not this quarter, then soon after the new year.”
Trump, for his part, decided to pick a fight with retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, alleging that Corker begged for his endorsement and only chose to step down when Trump denied it. Corker’s office says this is nonsense, and Corker himself told the New York Times that Trump’s behavior could set the nation “on the path to World War III,” and “would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.” Corker is the chair of the Senate’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee and a crucial swing vote on tax reform; Trump’s alienation of him could have real consequences for his agenda.
Behind Corker’s comments lurks Trump’s mismanagement of North Korea and his bizarre, reckless tweets at the country’s 33-year-old leader. Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, an ex-commander of NATO, now predicts that there’s a 10 percent chance of nuclear war with North Korea and a 20 to 30 percent chance of a conventional one. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently told Axios that "Trump's threats will reinforce North Korea's sense that it needs nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles, in order to deter American military action and efforts to bring about regime change.”
For these reasons and others — I haven’t mentioned Trump’s efforts to increase the premiums people are paying on Obamacare, or the fact that Jared and Ivanka now have their very own Clinton-esque email scandal — Trump’s approval rating now sits at 39 percent, lower than any modern president at this point in his term. No wonder he’s going to such lengths to distract us.