Trump vs. Congress: Now What?

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After the president suffered his first defeat on Capitol Hill, can the White House still make good on its legislative promises?


less than two weeks before President Trump’s inauguration, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, hosted a dinner at his office in the Capitol with members of Trump’s inner circle. The guests included the president-elect’s chief White House strategist, Stephen K. Bannon; his son-in-law and family consigliere, Jared Kushner; his chief of staff, Reince Priebus; his economic adviser, Gary Cohn; his nominee for Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin; his incoming deputy chief of staff, Rick Dearborn; and his legislative-affairs director, Marc Short. The ostensible purpose of the dinner was to discuss the details of Trump’s legislative agenda — in particular, the prospects for a sweeping tax-reform measure that Republicans, and especially Ryan, have been coveting for the past decade.

It was hoped that the dinner could also establish some sort of common ground between Ryan and Bannon, the two figures who would arguably wield the greatest influence over how Trump’s campaign promises became law — or didn’t. Ryan was a fixture among establishment Republicans even before joining Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket in 2012, his previous labors on the House Budget Committee cementing his reputation as the charts-and-graphs wizard of fiscal conservatism. Bannon, by contrast, was a renegade autodidact who read Plato and had seemingly materialized from nowhere to become the intellectual architect of Trump’s campaign and, later, administration.

Up to this point, Ryan had epitomized to Bannon everything that was wrong with the Republican Party. Discussing the two parties’ shortcomings, Bannon later told me, “What’s that Dostoyevsky line: Happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique ways?” (He meant Tolstoy.) “I think the Democrats are fundamentally afflicted with the inability to discuss and have an adult conversation about economics and jobs, because they’re too consumed by identity politics. And then the Republicans, it’s all this theoretical Cato Institute, Austrian economics, limited government — which just doesn’t have any depth to it. They’re not living in the real world.”

Breitbart News, the far-right media outlet Bannon ran before becoming the chief executive of the Trump campaign in August, had described Ryan, referring to his position on immigration, as “arguably the most pro-amnesty G.O.P. lawmaker in Congress” — an apostasy of nearly impeachable proportions from Bannon’s perspective. Worst of all, Ryan all but abandoned Trump during the 2016 campaign. After the leak in October of the damaging “Access Hollywood” tape, Ryan told fellow Republican House members on a conference call, “I am not going to defend Donald Trump — not now, not in the future.” A Republican lawmaker on the call told Trump what Ryan had said, yet another reason for Bannon to regard himself as Ryan’s worst enemy.

But as the dinner progressed, it became clear that Bannon and Ryan actually had some ideas in common. Over memorably bad chicken Parmesan, Ryan described his vision for a “border-adjustment tax,” which would levy taxes on imports while offering exemptions for exports. His tax package would include “immediate expensing,” he explained, in which capital expenditures would be written off against profits in the first year rather than over time. It also would abolish the alternative minimum tax and the estate tax.

These were ideas Ryan had been pushing since 2008. Now they had Bannon’s attention. Taken together with a drastic reduction in corporate taxes, Bannon believed, Ryan’s scheme would spur a renaissance of a manufacturing-based export economy, producing high-income labor in keeping with Trump’s populism. “I would actually say,” Bannon remembers observing admiringly, “that this tax reform comes as close to a first step of economic nationalism as there is.”

“I would call it ‘responsible nationalism,’ ” Ryan said, according to Bannon.

Bannon laughed. “You’re going to have a lot of folks in the Senate say this is breathtakingly radical.”

He meant it as a compliment. To Bannon, the entire world order — from the two political parties to the Wall Street reliance on leveraging to multiculturalism — was undergoing an extraordinary realignment, one made manifest in the 2016 election. According to Bannon’s vision, economic nationalism would reorient priorities to the working class’s benefit. Trade deals, jobs programs, tax incentives, immigration restrictions, environmental deregulation and even foreign policy would ultimately serve to restore the primacy of those Trump called “the forgotten Americans.”

In March, when I spoke to Trump by phone, I asked him what the term “economic nationalism” meant to him. Compared with Bannon’s revolutionary fervor, his reply was surprisingly cautious. “Well, ‘nationalism’ — I define it as people who love the country and want it to do good,” he said. “I don’t see ‘nationalism’ as a bad word. I see it as a very positive word. It doesn’t mean we won’t trade with other countries.”

Trump’s tone was genial but also a touch defensive. His postelection honeymoon had been short, if it existed at all. There were the administrative intrigues and self-inflicted Twitter drama, along with the questions about his campaign’s contacts with Russia, which had already forced the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Still, Trump’s legislative liaisons and their counterparts on Capitol Hill were doggedly negotiating a rollout of the Trump Era, one that would fulfill his most significant campaign promises — those that could not be done with just a stroke of Trump’s own pen but required acts of Congress.

First, Obamacare would be repealed and replaced. Next, an austere budget would be passed, with emergency funds allotted for the construction of a wall along the Southern border. Then would come a tax-reform plan, presumably of the type Ryan and Bannon discussed. And finally, a bipartisan coalition would deliver a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan to Trump’s desk. If all this came to pass by the end of 2017, it would lend some credence to Trump’s pledge that this would be “the busiest Congress we’ve had in decades.” But by March, this timetable was looking like a formidable “if.”

Trump himself seemed prone to distraction as he spoke to me from the Oval Office. Though I was asking about his policy aims, his musings swerved off to other vexations. More than once he denounced as “fake news” reports about his administration’s supposed disharmony. He brought up his speech before the joint session of Congress in February, “which I hope you liked, but I certainly have gotten great reviews — even the people who hate me gave me the highest review.” During the call, I could hear Priebus nearby, occasionally murmuring encouragement.

Trump sounded more clipped and less jaunty on the call than he did during the discursive chats I had with him last year on the campaign trail. The business of governing had little to do with any trade he had previously practiced. In Congress, he was grappling with an arcane and famously inefficient ecosystem over which he had little if any control — and people he incessantly derided on the campaign trail as being “all talk and no action.” I asked him if he still felt that way. “It’s like any other industry,” he replied, somewhat morosely. “I’ve met some great politicians and some, to be honest, who aren’t so hot.”

Trump wanted to make sure that he was given adequate credit for his achievements, even in his administration’s infancy. “We’ve only been here for a tiny speck of time,” he said, “and what I’ve done with regulations, moving jobs back into the country, what I’ve done with airplane pricing and buying is amazing. We’ve done a lot. I think we’ve done more than anybody for this short period of time.” Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would take exception to this claim. And Trump’s significant actions to date have consisted entirely of executive orders. What he has not yet demonstrated is his ability to actually shepherd a bill into law.

The only major legislation that congressional committees have even seen thus far is a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, which met with a stunning rebuke from Trump’s own party, forcing Ryan to withdraw the measure on the afternoon of March 24. At this stage of his presidency, Barack Obama had already signed into law his $787 billion economic-stimulus package and had moved on to holding White House meetings on health care. It’s conceivable that Trump could hit Day 100 with only minor symbolic legislative achievements to his name. For him to avoid this ignominy, the 45th president will have to develop a rapport with Washington’s 535 federal deal makers, including the ones who “aren’t so hot.”

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Donald Trump in the Oval Office on March 21. CreditChristopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times

Whether Trump’s agenda succeeds will also depend in no small measure on the ability of Bannon to expand his game beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. At 63, and with a fortune reported to be in the tens of millions of dollars — partly through his investment in the company that owns the syndication rights to “Seinfeld” — Bannon is regarded by Trump as a peer in the way that, say, the 45-year-old lifelong politico Priebus is not. He is also approvingly seen as a fellow workaholic by the president (whose only known hobbies are golf and hate-watching CNN). And he is a deft operator who has learned from the successes and failures of other Trump advisers. He has carefully not claimed credit that the president would wish for himself and avoids giving expansive interviews on his own controversial views that might detract from his boss’s celebrity. Like the former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Bannon understands that power in Trump World derives mainly from close and sustained physical proximity to the boss. Unlike Lewandowski, Bannon immediately grasped the importance of maintaining close relations with Jared Kushner, who factored heavily in Lewandowski’s dismissal from the Trump campaign last summer.

But like Kushner, Bannon has never worked in government or at a policy-making institute and has no meaningful experience when it comes to getting legislation passed. On the Hill, he has a few random associations — Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Representative John Culberson of Texas among them. Otherwise, he remains a looming but indistinct presence to the lawmakers who will be needed to pass most of Trump’s agenda.

Bannon’s interest in this agenda predated his association with Trump. One evening in January 2013, two guests showed up for dinner at the Capitol Hill townhouse that Bannon liked to call the Breitbart Embassy. One was the man Bannon would later describe to me as his “mentor”: Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. The other was Sessions’s top aide and protégé, a jittery 27-year-old named Stephen Miller.

Two months earlier, Obama decisively defeated Mitt Romney in the presidential election, prompting Priebus, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, to commission an analysis of the state of the party and its future, known colloquially in Washington as the “autopsy,” which would be delivered that spring. The only certainty was that the report would urge Republicans to court the growing Latino electorate — which had voted for Obama by a 44-point margin that November — by championing comprehensive immigration reform. The three men at the dinner table that night were among the few Republicans in town who thoroughly rejected that conclusion.

Bannon wanted to talk to Sessions and Miller about a different report: an article written by Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for the website RealClearPolitics, titled “The Case of the Missing White Voters.” Trende observed that Obama’s victory was less a function of increased minority turnout than of the fact that 6.6 million white voters who participated in the 2008 election stayed home in 2012. The reason for this drop, Trende argued, was that white working-class voters who did not approve of Obama but were alienated by Romney’s perceived elitism had not voted.

These votes were gettable, Bannon believed. As he would later tell me: “The working class, and in particular the lower middle class, understands something that’s so obvious — which is that they’ve basically underwritten the rise of China. Their jobs, their raises, their retirement accounts have all fueled the private equity and venture capital that built China. Because China’s really built on investments and exports, right? People are smart enough to know that they’re getting played by both political parties. The two may be different on social issues, but when it comes to fundamental economics, they’re both the same. That’s why the American working class is interested in trade. It’s linked to their lives.”

Sessions shared Bannon’s belief that the Republican Party needed to emphasize immigration reduction, border security and the preservation of working-class jobs through trade policy rather than courting Latino voters with a bill he regarded as “amnesty.” As Sessions would write in a memorandum to his Republican colleagues six months later, “This humble and honest populism — in contrast to the administration’s cheap demagoguery — would open the ears of millions who have turned away from our party.”

At some point during the five-hour dinner, Bannon recalls blurting out to Sessions, “We have to run you for president.” Just two years earlier, in 2011, he made a similar pitch to Sarah Palin, after completing a documentary about her called “The Undefeated.” Palin demurred. She was enjoying her life of celebrity and wealth, she had done little to immerse herself in policy minutiae and she was no doubt unsettled by Bannon’s warning that she stood little chance of defeating Obama.

Now he delivered a similar message to Sessions. “Look, you’re not going to win,” he recalls saying. “But you can get the Republican nomination. And once you control the apparatus, you can make fundamental changes. Trade is No.100 on the party’s list. You can make it No.1. Immigration is No.10. We can make it No.2.” Acknowledging that the drawling Alabama senator lacked Palin’s charisma, Bannon said, “You’ll be the anti-candidate.” But Sessions told Bannon he did not see himself running for president. “It was pretty obvious by the end of the night,” Bannon recalled, “that another candidate would have to do it.”

Two months later, on March 15, 2013, Bannon happened to be attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington when Trump took the stage. Trump had been a marginal figure at most in politics up to that point, entertaining a Reform Party run in the 2000 election — when he speculated that he would probably take more votes from the Democratic candidate than the Republican one — and leading a conspiratorial crusade in 2011 to force Obama to release his birth certificate. The possibility that he might be a suitable host body for Bannon’s worldview had not occurred to Bannon before Trump spoke.

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