It was one full day after Donald Trump signed a Russia sanctions bill passed by crushing majorities in the House and Senate, and he was still angry about it on Thursday. So angry, in fact, that he decided to slam a Congress controlled by his own party on Twitter, hitting it for both the Russia vote and the failure of the health care bill.
“Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” the president tweeted on Thursday morning. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!”
Trump isn’t just mad because Congress passed a bill he disagreed with by a veto-proof majority, or failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. He’s also mad because the bill expressly constrains his authority to lift sanctions without congressional approval. In essence, Republicans are telling a president from their own party that they don’t trust him.
This is a far more revealing fight than standard Trump Twitter temper tantrums. It shows the degree that the president has fallen out with the people in Congress he most needs to succeed as president. Congressional Republicans, for their part, are increasingly willing to ignore Trump or shoot back at him.
It also shows the degree to which Russia continues to benefit from chaos inside the US government — chaos, experts say, that Moscow is still trying to stoke. And Trump is playing right into their hands.
“Attacking Congress is a time-honored American tradition,” said Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Doing it directly by tweet, in a vague and threatening manner, is not.”
Trump has managed to infuriate his allies in Congress
In the modern era of American politics, where parties are highly disciplined and ideological, bipartisan support for major legislation is nearly unheard of. Yet that’s just what you saw on the Russia sanctions bill (which also included new sanctions on Iran and North Korea): It passed by a 98-2 margin in the Senate and a 419-3 margin in the House.
That’s not just big: It’s mind-bogglingly big. Usually the only things that pass by those margins are bills to rename post offices and resolutions condemning terrorist attacks. Rebukes to a president on his signature foreign policy priority don’t typically get anywhere near that much support, especially when Congress is controlled by the president’s own party.
What’s even more amazing is that this isn’t the only Russia-related issue where there’s a bipartisan effort to tie Trump’s hands. Earlier on Thursday, Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced a bill that would give special counsel Robert Mueller the right to a court review in the event that Trump fired him. Right now Trump can basically fire Mueller, who’s leading the escalating Russia collusion probe, at will; if Tillis-Coons passes, then Trump would need to prove he has some kind of good reason to fire Mueller or else the court might overrule him and keep the former FBI chief in his job.
Trump had hoped to quash the Russia scandal and, afterward, push for some kind of rapprochement between the US and Russia. His ability to do the latter has been constrained by the former, and he’s lashing out accordingly. His statement to the press after signing the bill on Wednesday closed with a comical demonstration of his anger.
“I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected,” Trump said, fairly petulantly. “As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
And Congress is bucking him on other non-Russia issues too: When the Trump administration recently asked Congress not to vote on anything until another health care bill was passed, Republicans basically told him to screw himself.
“We’ve had our vote, and we’re moving on to tax reform,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) told the Washington Post.
This is a president who clearly doesn’t understand the current political environment. He remains bereft of any major wins and is facing an investigation that’s threatening his presidency. His desperation and frustration appear to be leading him to attack his own party more and more openly.
The Kremlin must be thrilled
The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way— Dmitry Medvedev (@MedvedevRussiaE) August 2, 2017
Democrats, of course, are watching this all with a bag of popcorn. But so, experts say, is the Russian government.
Look at the above tweet, sent by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday. It sounds eerily similar to Trump’s language in his tweet on Thursday: Both the Putin deputy and the American president agree that Congress is stealing power that rightly belongs to the executive branch.
This is likely deliberate. The Russians, who have been astute Trump observers for some time, are trying to bait the president into conflict with Congress and other parts of the executive. Playing on his fear of being seen as weak is one way of doing that.
Seva Gunitsky, a Russia expert at the University of Toronto, points to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement as another example of this strategy. The key passage blames “certain circles” in the US government for the continued poor relations under Trump:
Despite Washington’s constant outbursts, we have adhered to responsible and reserved behavior and have not responded to express provocations until now. However, the latest events [the sanctions bill] confirm that certain circles in the US are fixated on Russophobia and open confrontation with our country.
By distinguishing between factions in the US government, the statement shows that the Russians recognize the divisions between the president and Congress and are trying to play to them.
When combined with Medvedev’s statement, the Russian strategy is clear. It’s hard to say whether the Russian statements actually inspired the president’s angry rhetoric, but it’s clear that he’s reacting in the way the Russians hoped he would.
“[Trump’s comments are] oddly similar to the Russian response,” Gunitsky says. “MFA's focus on ‘certain circles’ signals they're still appealing to Trump's distrust of Congress/deep state — and he agreed.”
This can only get them so far, of course. The sanctions bill still passed, which is not what the Kremlin wanted. Their dream — that Trump would come in and make Washington a Kremlin-friendly city — has pretty clearly been dashed.
Instead, they’ve settled for spicing up antagonism between the president and Congress.
“The Russians were hoping that he could deliver a grand bargain, [but] they realize that's not going to happen now,” Daniel Nexon, an international relations professor at Georgetown University, says. “They're settling for damage to US domestic and international position.”
It’s important to emphasize, again, that this is not the Kremlin’s ideal outcome. The Russians would rather have the US relaxing sanctions and helping them prop up Bashar al-Assad. But if they can’t have that, then an ineffectual US government, one at odds with itself and thus limited in its ability to counter Russian influence globally, is a nice second best.
“You certainly don't want to fall into the trap of seeing Putin and his cronies as master chess players,” Nexon says. “But [there’s a] potential for lasting damage to the United States — both domestically and in terms of US leadership.”