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Donald Trump’s Incompetence Has Political Consequences

With John McCain’s decisive vote, the White House’s distractions and ugliness might have finally killed ACA repeal

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There was a point, surely, when John McCain still hadn’t made up his mind. Well into Thursday night, the Arizona senator still would not say which way he was going to vote on the so-called "skinny repeal" of the Affordable Care Act. He had voted Tuesday to begin a debate that would ultimately allow the vote to proceed, sure, but who could say where he would fall on the bill itself? The vice president motorcaded in, preparing to cast a possible tiebreaker. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled: with other Republicans, with Mike Pence, with McCain himself. Reporters turned to analyzing McCain’s body language: He was sitting by himself! He hugged Dianne Feinstein! He made Chuck Schumer smile!

It’s impossible to say precisely what arithmetic nudged McCain to his final "no," but we know a few of the things at play. On the one hand, McCain repeatedly said that he would not vote for the bill in its present form. On the other, there was his long-expressed belief that many of Obamacare’s regulations worsen the American health care system, and the fact that this bill, if passed, was designed to eventually be retooled in a conference committee with the House. There were the goals of the party to which McCain has dedicated the better part of his adult life, and the added weight, undoubtedly, of the 80-year-old’s cancer diagnosis last week.

And then there’s Donald Trump, who won the presidency in no small part because of his promise to repeal the ACA, and who would surely trumpet any Republican success in the chamber that night as his own. Before the final vote, Trump reportedly called Pence, who handed the phone to McCain; the conversation was described by CNN as "brief and ultimately unsuccessful." Shortly after the bill failed, Trump tweeted to express his disappointment in the "3 Republicans and 48 Democrats" who voted no. They had "let the American people down."

McCain knew, surely, how badly the president wanted a victory, and how he would respond to a loss: bitterly, angrily, pettily. In those decisive minutes for the senator, it’s hard not to wonder just how big a role the inefficacy and vulgarity of the Trump presidency played.

It isn’t news that Donald Trump’s White House is ineffective, but it’s nevertheless stunning to see the failures in real time. On Thursday, in the closing hours before the vote, the White House’s public messaging was not about health care imperatives, the weaknesses of Obamacare, or the strength of various congressional coalitions. Instead, White House staffers were fielding questions about the behavior of newly appointed communications director Anthony Scaramucci. On Thursday afternoon, The New Yorker published what amounted to an annotated transcript of a conversation reporter Ryan Lizza had earlier in the week with the Mooch himself. Scaramucci called Lizza in an on-the-record rage, threatening to fire the White House’s entire communications staff if Lizza would not reveal a source to him and then stating, among other rhetorical gems, that he differed from Trump strategist Steve Bannon in that he was "not trying to suck my own cock."

Distracted yet? OK, how about this: Ban trans people from the military! That was the thrust of the president’s tweetstorm on Wednesday morning, which left just about everyone — Pentagon officials (some of whom originally believed Trump may have been announcing a military strike on North Korea), trans service members, senior Republicans, and bystanders hoping for some rhyme or reason from the Executive Office — scratching their heads. And yet, when Wednesday afternoon’s press briefing was predictably devoted in almost its entirety to mostly fruitless attempts to get clarification on Trump’s tweets, White House officials expressed pleasure with how it unfolded.

That episode was itself a distraction from the week’s original non-policy distraction: Trump’s agitating against his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose potential firing the president has audibly circled around.

Let’s return for a moment to the Scaramucci drama. Typically, the communications director is not only tasked with planning out communications — the strategic rollout of talking points to assist a predetermined legislative agenda — months in advance. The communications director also plans how to do this. They get supportive lawmakers and activists on the right television shows and radio programs: not just national ones like the White House–preferred Fox & Friends, but local programs, too. They rally constituents. They drive the conversation, identifying and pulling levers to keep matters working their way through Congress at the forefront of public consciousness. The goal isn’t just to be visible, it’s to be visible for a reason: to push the president’s legislative agenda.

Scaramucci is new to his job, but he joins an administration content to use surrogates less for political deal-making than to bicker about the distraction du jour. He is more than up to that particular task: After days of hints in other reports about a crude moniker, on Thursday The Daily Beast reported that Scaramucci had taken to calling the White House chief of staff by the nickname "Reince Penis."

Consider the failures of just about every policy Trump has attempted to advance so far. Ban transgender service members? Not anytime soon: A day after Trump’s tweets, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that there will be "no modifications" to the existing policies until the White House offers further guidance. Ban foreign Muslims from traveling to the United States? Courts repeatedly struck down the administration’s attempts at a travel ban; even the massively limited current version has already been rolled back. Get Mexico to pay for the wall? In the words of McConnell, "Uh, no." Pass Trump’s budget? Cue senators calling the president "crazy" and wondering if he even knows how the budget works. Prosecute Hillary Clinton? Sure, buddy. Just keep on firing people and see where that gets you.

Taken as a whole, it is a breathtaking trail of incompetence. Trump’s staff hasn’t failed to stay on message so much as even have a policy message at all. This administration isn’t in Washington to govern. It’s here to let Trump thrash around and say whatever he thinks in a given moment.

And then, of course, there’s the sheer ugliness of it all: the name-calling and jeering and duplicitous jockeying rampant throughout Trump’s inner circle. McCain saw the nastiness firsthand, when Trump, then still a presidential candidate, summed up McCain’s military service — 22 years in the Navy, including five-and-a-half years as a prisoner in North Vietnam, a time during which he declined early release in solidarity with his fellow prisoners of war — thusly: "I like people who weren’t captured."

Did the memory of that day sway McCain? We may never know. But the crude, rude, and bumbling parade of the Donald Trump presidency sure doesn’t seem to be getting very much done.