Is America Becoming Trump’s Banana Republic?
Interrupting a previously scheduled “Briefing on Drug Trafficking on the Southern Border,” President Trump called reporters into the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon and personally announced the grounding of every Boeing 737 Max in America. The move surprised White House advisers, two of whom told the Washington Post that Trump had earlier agreed to allow the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the legal authority to ground the planes, to make the announcement. Why was the United States acting so long after other countries had ordered the planes out of the sky, following a deadly crash in Ethiopia? Is this really how America’s air-safety decisions are supposed to be made? Nobody seemed to know. But one thing was apparent: Trump—a self-styled aviation expert, who cites his ownership of a Boeing 757 and his brief time running the Trump Shuttle airline, which went bust, in 1992, as the basis of his expertise—had once again inserted himself where he loves to be, right in the middle of a big story.
A few minutes after Trump’s announcement, I began a previously arranged conversation with one of the President’s most acerbic Republican critics, George Conway, who is also, as much of America now knows, the husband of Trump’s White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway. George Conway, a successful conservative lawyer, who turned down a top job in Trump’s Justice Department, has, in the past year, become an unlikely social-media celebrity, and his frequent tweets skewering the President his wife serves has made their home life a staple of late-night-television jokes. Conway recently made a rare public appearance, at a Georgetown University conference devoted to threats to the rule of law under Trump, where he warned that the country risked becoming a “banana republic.” I wanted to know more about what Conway meant, but, in the meantime, Trump’s decision to ground the planes had caught the attention of both of us. Was it a distraction? A scandal? An example of Trump doing the right thing? On the merits, no one seemed to disagree with the move. And yet the announcement in the Oval Office, followed by a lengthy rant about there being “no collusion” with Russia and about the border wall that the President says he is building, even though he isn’t, seemed so Trumpy.
“You have to look at everything through the prism of his narcissism,” Conway told me. “This is all about him exercising his authority and power to be at the center of attention, and, for whatever reason, he’s decided he’s going to get the most juice out of exercising this decree on this day in this way. That’s the way he makes himself important and special; there’s an arbitrariness to it.” Isn’t that pretty much the definition of a “banana republic,” I asked.
“Yes,” Conway responded. “It would make it a banana republic.” But Conway he went on to offer an important caveat to the remarks he made at Georgetown. “If it were not for the inherent checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution,” Conway said, “we would have a banana republic. But that also makes him an inherently weak President, because the office requires you to have the power to persuade. Ultimately, you become a powerful President only if you are able to persuade others to go along with you. His narcissism means he has to retreat to the people who worship him. He cannot reach out and persuade, like every other President tries to do. His narcissism causes him to be a weak President, and the checks and balances mean he is a weak President. And that’s why we don’t have a banana republic.”
The Trump show is endlessly distracting in a way that would be familiar to any connoisseur of the Latin-American strongman. The Wednesday-afternoon Oval Office appearance alone had enough fodder for countless talk-show segments: Trump grounds the airplanes! Trump lies about building the wall! Trump lies about being vindicated in the special-counsel probe —even when a federal judge says, in court, that he hasn’t been!
And, indeed, after our conversation, Conway spent much of Wednesday evening on Twitter complaining about the long stream of untruths that had come from the President in recent days, from the ridiculously pointless (refusing to admit his flub of the Apple C.E.O.’s name) to the acutely relevant (“NO COLLUSION!”). “Have we ever seen this degree of brazen, pathological mendacity in American public life?” Conway asked his Twitter followers. News outlets, including Fox News and The Hill, wrote stories about Conway’s Twitter storm, which included a call for a “serious inquiry” into the President’s mental health. Philippe Reines, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton, tweeted an offer for Conway to take up residence in his guest bedroom. In many ways, it was all just another day on the Trump-era Washington merry-go-round: Trump says crazy stuff; people get mad about it.
Up on Capitol Hill this week, however, two key votes demonstrated Conway’s point about the weakness of Donald Trump and the incredible shrinking Presidency his massive ego might well be bringing about. Although he acts like an all-powerful strongman, Trump could very well make himself the first President in decades to leave the office with less power than it had when he entered.
On Wednesday, even as the Boeing 737s were being ordered to land, the Republican-controlled Senate was voting to rebuke Trump on a major foreign-policy issue, invoking the rarely used War Powers Act to demand that the Administration halt its military support for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen, with seven Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the move. The House is now poised to follow suit, which would force Trump to issue a veto, the first of his Presidency. Trump doesn’t seem to have tried to stop the loss, though it marked the first time in many, many years both houses of Congress have asserted their prerogative to insure that the President consults with the legislative branch before making war.
Also on Wednesday afternoon, Trump seemed to go out of his way to sabotage his chances for a deal on a second major vote, a measure rejecting his emergency declaration about the Southern border. Last month, Congress refused to go along with his demands for billions of dollars in border-wall funding, and Trump issued the declaration as a way to get his money anyway. But even many reliable Republican congressional allies of the President found his argument impossible to justify, given the explicit power the Constitution grants Congress to make spending decisions. On Wednesday morning, reports emerged that G.O.P. officials were promoting a compromise deal, put forward by Utah Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, that might save the President from defeat.
Lee’s idea was to try to convince his colleagues to approve Trump’s emergency declaration but also pass a bill that would stop such declarations by Presidents in the future. At lunchtime Wednesday, Trump called Lee and said, in essence, Forget about it. “We tried to cut a deal,” Lee told The Hill. “The President didn’t appear interested.” Lee said that he would be voting against Trump’s emergency, and, by Thursday morning, when Lamar Alexander, from Tennessee, became the seventh Republican Senator to announce that he would vote against Trump, White House officials started forecasting even more defections. Soon, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee, who is now a freshman senator from Utah, was announced as an anti-Trump vote, and so was the Ohio Republican Rob Portman. “Jailbreak looming?” Carl Hulse, a veteran Hill watcher with Times, tweeted..
By 3 P.M. on Thursday, a dozen Republicans had joined the Democrats, for a 59–41 vote against Trump, signifying what is perhaps the most significant Republican turn against the President since he came into office. (The result was hardly an unqualified defeat for the President, however, who managed to get the North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis to flip-flop at the last minute on his previously announced opposition, despite having sanctimoniously lectured fellow-Republicans about “intellectual honesty.”) Trump’s rejoinder was a reminder that the math is still on his side. “VETO!” he tweeted. He can reject the measure and rest confident that Democrats remain far from the two-thirds vote necessary to override him.
Still, the votes showed that Trump is not yet a tyrant, an autocrat, or a king. The courts may eventually overrule Trump on the constitutionality of his declaration. In fact, it’s quite likely that they will. In the meantime, the midterm elections gave Democrats control of the House and the ability to force Republicans to publicly oppose the President on measures—such as those presented this week on the President’s powers to make war and spend government funds—that a Republican-majority Senate would have never even brought to the floor. If the Constitution’s system of checks and balances requires a President who is, above all else, a persuader, then Trump is failing. His banana republic will have to wait.
The Senate now has at least Twelve Angry Republicans, as our tweeting President might call them. That they were prodded to take a stand against Trump at all was a political disaster of the President’s own making. Republicans, including the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who eventually went along with the President’s emergency declaration, privately begged Trump not to go through with it. It was an ego play, a Trumpian gesture from the start. This is exactly the point George Conway made when he texted me about the emergency vote, on Thursday. Trump’s declaration was just like everything else about his Presidency, Conway wrote: “No strategy, no logic, just fleeting, narcissistic whim.” Then came a postscript, and I imagined Conway smiling broadly as he typed it, somewhere on the streets of New York. “Ironically,” he wrote, “was texting you as I was walking by Trump Tower.”