The Right Wing

Trump Is the Most Powerless President in American History

Trump wallows in a vat of perks as his broken promises pile up.

Photo Credit: donkeyhotey via Flickr

Let’s begin with the war in Afghanistan — because it’s a war, and American soldiers are dying over there; because according to the Congressional Research Service, it costs the American taxpayer $3.9 million to keep one American soldier over there for one year; because according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University, our presence in Afghanistan has cost us $2 trillion over 16 years. Think of it. Two trillion dollars. That would have provided 38 years of funding for the Department of Education, 36 years of funding for the State Department, and 148 years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers 9 million underprivileged children, the funding for which Congress just let lapse. By any measure you can think of, we have spent a staggering amount of money over the 16 years we have been there. Which is at least part of the reason Donald J. Trump, as a private citizen and as a candidate for president, repeatedly said he wanted to get us out of Afghanistan.  

Back in 2013, Trump went on what we would now call a tweet storm over the war in Afghanistan, perhaps road-testing what would become his policy of putting “America first.” “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first,” he tweeted. Later, he tweeted: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”

Two years later, as a candidate for president in October of 2015, Trump told CNN’s New Day program: "We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn't know what the hell they were doing. And it's a mess. It's a mess. And at this point, you probably have to (stay) because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave. Just as I said that Iraq was going to collapse after we leave."

Two more years have passed, and Trump is now the president of the United States, and what did he do back in mid-August? Did he announce a new trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that would “rebuild the USA” with projects to repair roads and bridges and put “world class” airports where we now have “third world” airports? No, what he did was announce that he would be sending 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a kind of mini-surge, adding to the approximately 8,400 we already have over there. He announced the troop increase in order to accomplish “obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge,” goals pretty much indistinguishable from those of his predecessors, Presidents Obama and Bush, whose Afghanistan policies he was criticizing in his tweets and statements on the campaign trail last year.

Why did he go back on one of the few things he actually appears to believe in, the futility of spending more blood and treasure overseas in useless wars? Could Trump have handled the August Afghanistan decision differently, you ask? Why, yes he could have. Instead of announcing that he was sinking 4,000 additional troops in the 16-year-old pit of quicksand that is Afghanistan, he could have announced that he wasn’t sending over even one more soldier, and in fact, was beginning a gradual troop pull-out. You want to know why he could do that? Because he’s commander in chief of our armed forces, that’s why. Because he’s the president of the United States. He’s the top dog. He gets to do what he wants to do, and the Army, or the Navy, or the Air Force — every swingin’ you know what in the whole damn Pentagon — has to do what he says.

That’s what Trump doesn’t realize. Every day when he gets up and goes downstairs in the White House and takes his seat at his desk in the Oval Office, he’s sitting on a gigantic reservoir of power, and all he has to do is take a cup and dip into it every once in a while to do the things he wants to do. But that’s not what Trump does. He’s too interested in wallowing in the pile of perks of the presidency to bother with stuff like saying no to the Pentagon.

The man who used to have to pay his own way on his private 757 now takes Marine One straight from the back lawn at the White House to Air Force One on the tarmac at Stewart and he flies anywhere he wants to go, and he comes back the same day if he wants to, so he can sleep in his own bed upstairs at the White House, and if he wants to play golf this weekend, then by god, he plays golf, and if he wants to rile up a bunch of rednecks in some hellhole down in Alabama, then by god, he sashays out to Air Force One and he flies down there and he riles them up, that’s what he does!

He may not like the job of being president very much, but he really loves the lifestyle! And he loves the presidency as a brand! I mean, the Trump International Hotel is sitting there a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, and it’s stuffed to the rafters with foreign diplomats and lobbyists and political hangers-on and grifters of every shape and size, and they’re tucking into their $110 porterhouse steaks and $59 lobster tails, and they’re plonking down upward of a grand a night for a luxo-room, and the Trump Organization, run by his two sons, is sitting back and raking in the dough! And the Trump boys are flying around the world with their Secret Service details costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they’re lining up deals for Trump hotels and Trump condos and fucking Trump skating rinks in Dubai for all we know! Who wouldn’t love this whole president thing, huh?

But back at the desk in the Oval Office, Trump is powerless. Take Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week. All Gen. Stanley McChrystal had to do over in Afghanistan back in 2010 was describe Obama’s dithering over Afghanistan troop levels as “painful” and whine about how he felt “betrayed” by Obama’s hand-picked ambassador to Afghanistan to a reporter for Rolling Stone — the rock 'n' roll magazine, for crying out loud! — and Obama had him on a jet and back in Washington and out on his ass as commander in Afghanistan. But Tillerson? He goes and does off-the-reservation shit like actually trying to negotiate with China to find some reasonable settlement over North Korea’s nuclear program, and he has the temerity to shoot his mouth off at a national security meeting at the Pentagon, calling his boss a “fucking moron,” and all Trump can do is “vent” to Gen. Kelly, his chief of staff, and get Tillerson to go before the press at the State Department and issue a non-denial denial.

Trump is all big and brash and loud about how the NFL should be firing those SOB football players who take a knee during the National Anthem and he can’t fire his SOB secretary of state? I think I’ve figured out why: because he doesn’t understand the power he has as president of the United States. He doesn’t understand the power that is his in the first place, and whatever power he thinks he has, he doesn’t understand how to exercise. He is suffering under the delusion that doing away with pretty much everything Obama did actually amounts to accomplishing something. By allowing himself to fall under the spell of establishment deconstructionists like Bannon, he has let the government wither to the point that the State Department is so hollowed out, he can’t fire Tillerson. There’s nobody left in the building to take over, nobody there to take that 3 a.m. call from an embassy under siege, nobody to accept an invitation from the embassy of Ghana to a goddamn cocktail reception where you’re supposed to press the flesh and grease the skids so when the time comes to make a deal for some Ghanaian rare metal that’s absolutely essential for some new satellite the NSA absolutely has to get into orbit, or a new high-tech weapons system we need to defeat ISIS, we’ll be first in line, not tagging along behind the Brits or the French or whoever is just as eager for the Ghanaian rare metal for their own reasons.

Look at the other stuff he hasn’t done. He came into office yelling that he would repeal and replace Obamacare on “day one.” Has he done it? Nope. He told every single auditorium filled with Make America Great Again hat-wearing screaming crowds that he was going to build a “big beautiful wall” on the border. Has he done it? Nope. Why not? Because he doesn’t understand his own power as president, that’s why. You want to know what Lyndon Johnson would have done with the raving Republican loons in the so-called freedom caucus in the House? Johnson would have had his staff figure out what each of them had in the works for the district back home, and he would have called them on the phone or had them into the Oval Office one by one, and he would have told each of them individually exactly what they wouldn’t be getting any time soon if they didn’t vote with him. That money you thought you had coming for the new bridge you wanted to build over the Bumfuck River, Jimbo? Gone. The appropriation that ponied up a few spare millions out of the Defense budget for the company that was going to put its plant in your home county? Headed elsewhere. When Johnson was finished with that bunch of puffed-up dimwits, they wouldn’t have been able to do so much as name a post office after one of their pals back home who contributed to their campaign.

What does Trump do? He has the gang of them over to the White House and he makes some noises about how he needs their votes, and they get in their bus and go back to Capitol Hill and forget they ever met him. He’s going to shut down the government if he doesn’t get the initial funding for his almighty wall. What does Trump do? Hurricane Harvey blows in and sucks the blow out of his blowhard ass.

Here’s the best one of all. Everybody has seen photo after photo of the devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. 3.4 million Americans are without power. There’s no running water on the entire island. Hospitals don’t have medicine. Food is running out. Bridges are torn up, roads are impassable. Trump flies down. They take him out to some upper-income neighborhood of homes built out of concrete that didn’t get touched by the storm. He visits a relief center and throws paper towels to the crowd. This man is the president of the United States. You know what he could have done? He could have stood there in that relief center and he could have looked at that crowd and said, these cans of chicken and flashlights and paper towels are not enough. I’m going back to Washington, and I’m going to push through an emergency appropriation of $10 billion for the island of Puerto Rico, and that money will be on its way by Friday, along with 10,000 more troops and 100 helicopters and 10 ships loaded down with generators, emergency cellphone towers, military water purification trucks and containers filled with food, clothing and construction materials.

And you know what? He’s the president of the United States, and the president can push through emergency appropriations bills, and the president can order the military to send troops and helicopters and water purification trucks, and the president can absolutely get it done because the president is the commander in chief, and the president can convince the Congress to act because the president has enormous powers of persuasion and because he occupies the most powerful office in the world.

Trump acts like he thinks his power comes from his “base.” That’s why he’s always jumping on Air Force One and flying out to an underattended rally in one of the states that already voted for him overwhelmingly once and really doesn’t need to hear anything else about the wall he hasn’t built or the health care program he hasn’t repealed and replaced. But that’s not where Trump’s power comes from. It comes from being the president of the United States. But that’s not who he is. He just plays one on TV.

 

Lucian K. Truscott IV has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, covering stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World