In the weeks after Republicans’ first stab at replacing Obamacare with Trumpcare failed, legislative activity slowed to a crawl and the political world became consumed with President Donald Trump’s schizoid obsession with the 100-day benchmark. He has veered wildly between deriding the benchmark as arbitrary, and aggrandizing himself as the most productive early-term president in history.
But on Wednesday, the meta question of Trump’s competence gave way to more substantive reporting about what looks like policy movement. Over the course of 24 hours:
1. House conservatives closed ranks around the American Health Care Act, after GOP leaders agreed to make it meaningfully more regressive;
4. Trump bussed the entire Senate up to the White House for a briefing about North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.
A government that simultaneously tackled health care reform, tax reform, free trade, and a massive global security crisis would be a very busy government, but all of this kinetic activity is designed to create only the illusion of progress. It is of such singular importance to Trump that newsroom budgets on and around his 100th day be filled with stories about legacy-defining issues, rather than the absence thereof, that he and pliant Republicans in Congress have staged a frenzy to obscure just how idle the GOP-controlled government has become.
When you examine the component elements of all this supposed multitasking, you’ll find they are either entirely hollow or self-contradicting.
For weeks now, Trump has accepted House Speaker Paul Ryan’s premise that the ordering of legislative priorities is of cardinal strategic importance—and health care must come first. Completing health care first isn’t required, but it would simplify the politics of tax legislation, by being the main vehicle for cutting tax revenue. Eliminate Obamacare’s taxes, and the revenue-reducing work of Republican tax reform is basically done, allowing Republicans to focus on shuffling around the tax burden in separate legislation. Failing to repeal Obamacare means Republicans have to get behind a massive, standalone, regressive tax cut, which would either fail to pass or—thanks to obscure budget rules—have to expire after several years.
This week, Trump and Republicans in Congress have shattered all of their own pretenses. If Trumpcare is on track to pass, why did Trump introduce a bar-napkin “plan” to cut taxes on the rich temporarily, when he could have waited to introduce a permanent cut? And if Trumpcare isn’t on track to pass, why are Republicans pretending otherwise, wasting precious days that could be spent on tax reform? Why not pick one charade or the other?
Trump, likewise, could have begun the process of withdrawing from NAFTA at any time since he became president, making his sudden interest in an executive order that could “trigger a renegotiation of the trade pact rather than outright withdrawal” seem more like a desperate half measure or outright feint. Indeed, Trump announced in a statement late Wednesday that he wouldn’t terminate NAFTA, but rather bring it “up to date through renegotiation.”
Similarly, if you thought the all-hands-on-deck Senate field trip to the White House heralded a substantial shift in foreign policy, well…
None of this is to say Trump’s critics should rest on their laurels. Trump’s poorly calibrated belligerence could land us in a war with North Korea very abruptly. He could just as easily get us into trade wars in a fit of pique, and restless Republicans could pressure vulnerable members to pass a horrible, toxic health care bill simply to counter the prevailing narrative of gridlock and incompetence.
But that narrative exists for many reasons. And the biggest one is that Trump is far less concerned with learning how to do the president’s job than appearing to be doing so—even if it means wasting everyone’s time.