WASHINGTON: Donald Trump visited the White House this morning for the first time in an official capacity as the initial shock of his election as president of the United States began to wear off. You could tell it was wearing off because Congress already began to remind Trump of the limits of his power.
At first, the Republicans crowed about retaining the Senate and the House while winning the White House as well. In the initial shock and euphoria, many people seemed to forget that Trump campaigned against most of the entrenched interests here. “Drain the swamp” was a key slogan of the Trump campaign and it was aimed straight at Capitol Hill, which does sit above a big old swamp.
Mitch McConnell, Senate majority speaker, made it crystal clear yesterday that Trump would not get whatever he wants on the Hill. A key promise by Trump for his first 100 days was to impose term limits on Congress. Ain’t gonna happen in the Senate, McConnell said. He also showed little enthusiasm for Trump’s big infrastructure spending plans. “We look forward to working with him,” McConnell told reporters. “I think most of the things that he’s likely to advocate we’re going to be enthusiastically for.”
Sen. John McCain, whom Trump treated shabbily during the campaign, tweeted “congrats” yesterday to Trump on his election and then said that, “as Chrmn of Armed Services Cmte I’ll work to confront nat’l security challenges & support troops.” I’d read that as, you can come up here and let us know what you want and I’ll let you know what I think should be done.
During his tour of Capitol Hill today with House Speaker Paul Ryan and then McConnell, there were lots of smiles — especially from Ryan — but little substance was offered. Trump, it has to be said, behaved with much less bombast and much more grace today during his White House and Hill visits than he exhibited on the campaign trail.
However, Trump’s narrow victory and disparagement of establishment Republicans leaves him in need of as much help from Capitol Hill as he can get.
“Trump won in an upset but not in a landslide, despite the tone of the reporting. Clinton actually won the popular vote and the Republicans lost ground in both the House and Senate,” Mark Cancian, a former career defense budget official, told me in an email. “It’s a 50/50 divided country. Trump does not have the margin that Obama did when Obama took office and could push legislation through without Republican support. That means Trump will need to work with Democrats. Whether he is temperamentally able to do that remains to be seen.” Working with Senate Democrats will be especially important.
On top of all that, Donald Trump is a serious Johny-come lately to the GOP fold, let alone the Washington scene. Because of that he has very few favors he can call in and few friends here. While you can be sure that the Trump administration will be able to fill its ranks in the Pentagon, Intelligence Community and State Department eventually, because nothing attracts political types like the power to actually make a decision, it may well take longer than usual.
“Much of the Republican varsity opted to sit this out so Trump will need to reach down into the JV squad,” Cancian wrote. Trump advisors concede privately they weren’t getting ready for a win and need to scramble to catch up with the process to have some national security officials ready to start work close to Inauguration Day.
However, defense is the one area of policy and spending where Trump and Congress are likely to agree. Trump wants higher readiness and more money for the Pentagon. “I think defense is an area where Trump and Republicans in Congress can definitely work together. They share very similar concerns about the current status of the military and a similar vision for rebuilding the military,” said Justin Johnson, a former GOP congressional aide now at the Heritage Foundation. Cancian agreed. And a national security advisor to Trump said this afternoon we should all expect “pragmatic and mainstream defense policies” from the new president. Stay tuned!