Perhaps you missed President Trump’s shifty little political move last week on that massive congressional spending bill. Be assured though, every member of that co-equal branch of government called Congress caught it. And we’re likely to witness waves from his duplicity down the road.
It appeared for a spell that we were headed for another of those too-familiar fiscal cliffhangers threatening to shut down parts of the federal government for lack of authorized money. All because the innumerable factions on the Hill can’t agree on much beyond the importance of scheduled recesses.
But acting alone in secret, party leaderships designed an omnibus spending bill that financed the federal government through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. It’s a reckless way for a modern nation to craft fiscal affairs, dumping $1,300,000,000,000 of spending into a bill that’s 2,232 pages long.
So much for avowed transparency. No one can read it all, which is the point, of course. Billions of spending gets hidden within. But members know their own special something is included, so they blindly vote Aye.
We’ll be learning for weeks about the special little and not-so-little deals contained in that thing.
Not that this seems to matter anymore in today’s Washington -- beyond a handful of vocal commentators. But such massive spending in one box totally demolishes Republican professions of fiscal conservatism, which the party has for years used to gain control of both legislative chambers and the White House.
One of the reasons this monetary monstrosity slid through Congress this time with relative smoothness was that Trump had his people spread the word that he intended to sign it. That augured well for Congress to get out of Dodge on Friday right on-time for its next two-week recess.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Friday, despite some GOP protest votes, the Senate completed action on the bill, sent it to the White House for Trump’s promised signature and went home to pack.
But hang on, Tom Dooley.
Five hours later, as dawn broke over that arthritic city, a Trump tweet erupted from the White House upstairs: “I am considering a VETO of the Omnibus Spending Bill…”
As the reality show host well knew, the unexpected news was quickly flashed out by the media. The unpredictable chief executive was changing course again? Seriously? Had he suddenly become a fiscal conservative? All that work blown up like some old stadium? And barely 18 hours before another government shutdown?
Trump’s stated reasoning, which he hadn’t insisted upon, was because his beloved and “desperately needed” border wall was not fully-funded and more than 800,000 DACA recipients “have been totally abandoned by the Democrats.”
Now, c’mon. Most Americans don’t live and work within radioactive range of the Trump Chaos Centrifuge. But clearly the real estate magnate, who once wrote that every dealmaker must be prepared to walk away from any negotiation, was bluffing.
About half the omnibus comprises $655 billion for defense, including new hardware and significant military pay raises that Trump touts at every opportunity because his base, such as it is, believes it so strongly. And Trump may, too.
Sure enough, the president was bluffing. Seven hours later, Trump opened the signing ceremony: “We have a lot of good news to report.”
Of course, Trump had to grouse some: “For the last eight years, deep defense cuts have undermined our national security. If you look at what’s taken out, they hollowed our readiness as a military unit and put America at really grave risk. My highest duty is to keep America safe. Nothing more important. The omnibus bill reverses this…”
He had to dig Democrats: “I tried to explain to them, the military is for Republicans and Democrats and for everybody else. But we have tremendous opposition…” And then adding for cover: “There are a lot of things I’m unhappy about in this bill.”
But the president signed it anyway, as he was going to do all along.
The billionaire has never been big on fiscal restraint anyway.
What this unnecessary drama and double-dealing accomplished in Trump’s mind is two-fold. It kept the spotlight completely on him as host of the week’s budget episode.
And it positioned him as a virtuous knight jousting with these two swamp creatures, the GOP and Democrats. Standing tall for national security and defending disillusioned Americans from maneuvering pols.
But here’s what that Friday charade also did. It hung most members of Congress out to dry in Washington’s wan wintry sun, most especially members of the party Trump now claims membership in. Republicans in good faith had taken his direction on the omnibus.
No one knows what coming months hold, for instance, or what special prosecutor Robert Mueller will find and decide. What, for example, next year’s possible Democratic House might do about investigations and impeachment.
What goes around comes around in politics. And should it come to House impeachment and Senate conviction votes, it’s quite conceivable then that Republicans help someone else get hung out to dry.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.