Can President Trump's dual-track presidency survive?

President Donald Trump is running a dual-track presidency. This week ended with a collision between two major stories...

Posted: Dec 3, 2017 4:57 PM
Updated: Dec 3, 2017 4:57 PM

President Donald Trump is running a dual-track presidency. This week ended with a collision between two major stories affecting his presidency. At the same exact time that the massive corporate tax cut reached the final vote in the Senate, successfully passing in the dead of the night by a narrow margin of 51 to 49, the nation learned that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Sergey Kislyak, then-Russian ambassador to the United States, and that he had been told by a "top member" of the transition team-reportedly Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner-to reach out to the Russians to learn more about the UN vote regarding Israeli settlements.

The convergence of these two stories was a powerful reminder of the two-track presidency that President Trump is trying to conduct-and the risks that Republicans take each day by going along with the part that they find more appealing.

On one track, the administration has aggressively been pursuing a pro-corporate, deregulatory agenda to free financial and business institutions from as much federal intrusion as possible, whether that means drastically slashing corporate taxes or systematically dismantling the Obama-era regulations to curb climate change and financial malfeasance.

The President is also moving fast and furiously, primarily through executive orders, to ramp up administrative efforts curbing illegal immigration and banning many refugees. Despite all the head-scratching and complaining that has come from the Republicans about the White House, this has been an agenda that much of the GOP seems to be pleased about. The truth is that for all the talk about Trump being "anti-establishment," it sits well with the direction in which the Republican Party has moved in recent years.

Then there is the second track-the Russia scandal. Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's relationship to the Trump campaign and administration, as well as the possibility that Trump obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey, is not going away. Every time that the news about the issue subsides, there is a new bombshell story about another indictment or more evidence that administration officials had not been truthful with federal authorities.

While the President likes to blame "fake news" for these stories, the truth is that most of them have come out of the investigation and revolve around the revelation of misstatements and lies by Trump officials about relations with Russia. Based on the revelations this Friday, and a story in the New York Times pointing to further evidence of how President Trump leaned on Republicans to stop the investigation over the summer, it is likely that this scandal will only intensify in the coming months.

The scandal is doubly problematic for congressional Republicans when compounded with the rest of President Trump's behavior that has led this administration into some dangerous waters, such as provocative insults toward foreign leaders and his retweet of anti-Muslim videos.

Is it possible for President Trump to continue to make progress on his policy agenda if the scandal gets worse? Can presidents govern on two tracks?

It's not easy. To be sure President Bill Clinton kept working on domestic issues in 1998 when the House Republicans were moving to impeach him for perjury and obstruction of justice. He pushed an initiative to help working families obtain child care and expanded support for after-school care. He pushed through the patient's bill of rights that protected the rights of 85 million Americans under federal health plans.

Americans who lived through that era will famously remember the split screen coverage of the President explaining his decision to undertake military action against Iraq for violating UN sanctions while the House voted to impeach him. His critics compared the moment to the 1997 film "Wag the Dog," in which an administration manufactured a fake war to divert attention from a president's sex scandal.

Though President Richard Nixon was clearly in bad shape by the end of the Watergate, during much of the time between the summer of 1972 and August 1974 he was still able to govern and move forward with a number of key issues. In 1973, he signed the Paris Peace Accords that ended US involvement in the Vietnam War and helped secure a resolution to the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur war

President Trump has some advantages over both of them that might make it easier to keep governing, even if the scandal gets more damaging. Most importantly, Trump is much less committed to having Congress pass legislation, the tax cut being an exception, and more comfortable using executive power that does not require any kind of political support. He also governs at a moment of intense partisan polarization. As we have seen, Republicans are willing to stand by a Republican, no matter how unstable, because they see this as a better choice than the possibility of a Democrat.

He is also a President who is remarkably defiant in the face of damaging political news. He seems to fundamentally believe his own world of alternative facts and is comfortable moving forward with his plan regardless of what people think about his performance or ethics. This disposition, at least in the short term, can give him some cushion to pursue the issues that matter to him regardless of the turmoil that would paralyze other leaders. To support him, he enjoys a vibrant and robust conservative media with shows such as "Fox & Friends" and websites like Breitbart that will continue to offer him strong support.

But the scandal is costly and Republicans should not be fooled. We know, from Trump's tweets, his public statements, and from the news reports of his private conversations, that this scandal has bothered him, thus the pressure that he put on congressional Republicans and decision to fire James Comey.

Just as important is the threat this poses to the party, not simply the President. The dual-track presidency constantly presents congressional Republicans with the continued high-risk that they face as a result of their fierce, almost blind, party loyalty that allows them to support the President or at least leave him alone even when he destabilizes our political institutions and takes positions that are far outside the parameters of mainstream politics-such as tweeting the horrendous anti-Muslim videos from Britain First.

When Republicans work with Trump to move forward on the first track, they tie themselves more closely to the President's second track, which could easily unravel his administration and cause immense damage to the long-term reputation of the party. Whenever he asks for their vote, as he will have to do on the final conference committee report for the tax bill, Republicans on the Hill should be thinking about this.

The dual-track presidency is not impossible and the victory on this major tax bill in the House and Senate, one that will have huge long-term ramifications for the fiscal strength of the federal government, shows us that he can walk and chew gum at the same time. But it's not easy and Republicans should keep in mind that each time they vote to support a President, they move a little closer to being seen as part of whatever he leaves behind for the nation's history.

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