WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump was adamant that Congress cut payroll taxes – until, suddenly, he backed down.
He demanded that all of the nation’s schools reopen for the fall semester – until, suddenly, he allowed for some wiggle room.
He insisted upon filling every seat at the Republican National Convention celebration – until, suddenly, he canceled the event. And he refused to wear a mask in public – until, suddenly, he did, and morphed into a mask evangelist.
For Trump, this has been a week of retreat. Rather than bending others to his will, the president has been the one backing down from long-held positions in the face of resistance from fellow Republicans or popular opposition, scrambling to resurrect his reelection campaign while the coronavirus continues to ravage the nation.
Weakened politically by his response to the pandemic, Trump changed course after polls showed his positions did not align with public attitudes or – as was the case with the payroll tax cut – his Republican allies on Capitol Hill declined to advance his interests.
“The good ship Trump has sprung a leak, and it’s leaking political capital,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University and a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
“I don’t think the president is pivoting,” Naftali said. “I think the president is backtracking because he is facing head winds, and those are head winds from elected Republicans.”
Throughout his 31/2 years in office, Trump largely controlled Republicans in Congress, effectively dictating their agenda and, if needed, coercing them to vote as he saw fit. That makes the opposition among Republicans, as well as Democrats, to the payroll tax cut Trump has strongly pushed for in the latest negotiations over a new federal stimulus package all the more notable.
“I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong, how the wheels came off on the payroll tax cut,” said Stephen Moore, an outside economic adviser to the president and his team. “Certainly there’s been a retreat on that issue, and it’s frustrating to me because I think President Trump really wanted to do a payroll tax cut.”
Trump had long called for a reduction in the payroll taxes that fund Social Security, suggesting he might not sign a stimulus bill that did not include one. Yet in negotiations this week between the Trump administration and Senate Republicans, the payroll tax cut was jettisoned, with many GOP senators rejecting his idea. Trump put the onus on congressional Democrats for the tax cut not being included, but it was Republicans who killed it.
Trump’s advisers sought to play down the loss, arguing that the president and his team never expected the payroll tax cut to make it in the final legislation and that it was a natural outcome for the proposal to end up on the cutting-room floor.
“Thanks to the President’s leadership and political prowess, he successfully pushed through three significant rounds of landmark coronavirus relief for the American people and he’ll continue to work on a fourth,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said in an email. She added that Trump has “fought for the American worker,” and she accused Democrats of trying to advance “a litany of liberal priorities unrelated to the virus.”
Overall, White House officials rejected the characterization of the president’s sudden advocacy for mask usage and cancellation of the convention festivities in Jacksonville, Fla., as a retreat. They argued that Trump remains popular with Republican voters and that his actions were designed to protect the American people, not a reaction to his political standing.
On masks, Trump for months refused to be photographed publicly wearing one and even mocked people who did cover their faces. But earlier this month he staged a photo op at Walter Reed Army Medical Center wearing a mask, and this week in successive press briefings he advocated that people to wear masks whenever social distancing cannot be achieved.
The president’s change in tune came after some Republican governors instituted mask mandates in their states and polls showed a growing share of the public supported mask usage and other preventive health measures designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Before shifting course this week on the Republican convention, the president throughout the spring and early summer had insisted on having a packed, boisterous crowd of delegates and other supporters at the event. After officials in North Carolina, because of health restrictions, could not guarantee a full house, Trump moved the celebration to Jacksonville, where state and local leaders were more willing to acquiesce to his demands.
But Trump said Thursday that he was canceling the festivities in Jacksonville, citing public safety as Florida, and the Jacksonville area especially, confront a surging number of coronavirus cases.
“I looked at my team and I said: ‘The timing for this event is not right. It’s just not right with what’s happened recently – the flare-up in Florida – to have a big convention,’ ” Trump told reporters. “I have to protect the American people. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I always will do. That’s what I’m about.”
Trump’s safety rationale was inconsistent, however, with his stance last month in regard to staging a large campaign rally in Tulsa. He was adamant about holding the event, despite repeated warnings from local health officials that convening thousands of people in an indoor arena could further spread the virus. In the days that followed the rally, the rate of coronavirus cases in the Tulsa area increased.
Trump has since come to terms with the reality that the virus is worsening – as opposed to disappearing, as he has predicted it would – and that many Americans are apprehensive about mass gatherings and want to proceed cautiously, according to a former senior administration official briefed on Trump’s decision-making calculations.
Democratic pollster Margie Omero said she thinks what Trump has been doing is “waiting for his ratings to completely fall apart and then trying to find actions more people might support.”
“However much Trump tries to discredit polling, we know one thing about him – he lives for public approval more than public service,” Omero added. “So he seems to be reacting to his political standing.”
Historian Douglas Brinkley suggested Trump’s recent moves were less a forced retreat from a position of weakness and more an awkward attempt at the kind of pre-election triangulation executed to varying degrees of success by Nixon, Bill Clinton and other past presidents.
“Trump is trying to do a giant reset,” Brinkley said. “Just like the new ‘new Nixon,’ this will be the ‘new Trump,’ ” Brinkley said. “. . . Right when you think a politician is set in stone, you can get a makeover. These are the games politicians play.”