Ahn Young-joon / AP
President Trump would like you to believe he’s about to score his first major legislative victory by passing tax reform before the year ends. He'll then pass a bipartisan deal to protect DREAMers, convince Democrats to help repeal Obamacare, all while decertifying the Iran deal and playing good cop, bad cop with American diplomacy toward North Korea.
But the actual reality — and severity of the situation — is becoming clear: one where the president blasts an influential senator he'll need on tax reform and is criticized in turn in sharply personal terms; presents fantasy immigration principles that are dead on arrival in Congress; and where the president is limited to engaging in stunts, most recently sending his vice president on a $250,000 taxpayer-funded mission to an NFL game, which he promptly left in supposed indignation because some players wouldn't stand for the national anthem. All of this is taking place as Americans and world leaders worry that Trump could set off North Korea's unstable leader with tweets calling him "little rocket man," along with a suggestion that the only option may be war.
This is the Trump alternate reality show, one that seems to be getting more outlandish and unbelievable, as the White House inches towards all out war with a GOP-controlled Congress.
The clash between realities played out on call White House adviser Stephen Miller held Sunday night with immigration hardliners and Trump surrogates to walk them through the administration’s new immigration principles, which would drastically alter the US’ immigration system in exchange for offering some protections for young undocumented immigrants. Miller, a source on the call said, did his best General Patton impression, imploring his brothers in arms to push forward because “we will not be deterred.”
No one on the call even brought up the possibility that the hardline wish list, which includes curbs to legal immigration, would have difficulty passing through Congress.
“People were very happy, it was, ‘How do we sell this? How do we get this done?’” the source on the call said. “They think they can get everything.”
That thought process seems out of line with the actual reality in Washington. Congressional Democratic leaders, who had gleefully announced the broad parameters of a deal with Trump on protecting DREAMers from deportation last month, immediately condemned the new proposal, which seemed to discard what they had discussed. And a source close to the administration said the framework was Miller’s “aggressive wishlist that is clearly not going to happen.”
Strains between the world as Trump presents it and the world Republicans in Washington are experiencing also came into focus Sunday, when Sen. Bob Corker responded to criticism from Trump on Twitter by calling the White House an “adult day care center.” The Tennessee Republican followed up that comment with an interview to the New York Times, saying he wasn’t alone in his comprehension of the situation. “Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” he said his colleagues.
Corker also pricked Trump's version of events around why the senator decided not to run for reelection. "I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true," Corker said. "You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does."
Several congressional Republicans — who were out of Washington Monday for the Columbus Day holiday — declined to comment on their relationship with the president or did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for an interview. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended Corker to the Associated Press Monday, calling him an “important part of our team.” McConnell did not mention the president. And in a statement to BuzzFeed News, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman praised Corker for his “unwavering integrity” and stressed the need for Republicans to come together. “If we’re going to accomplish our economic and national security agenda we’re going to have to work together, period.”
Trump spent at least some of his holiday working another Republican senator: he golfed with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, where according to the White House the two went over the administration’s “very aggressive fall agenda,” including on tax reform and health care.
But concerns about the deepening rift with Congressional Republicans — and Trump’s version of his presidency — are now front and center, even for the president’s supporters.
"I’m insanely concerned, to be honest,” said a source close to the administration, nearly mimicking words Corker used in his interview with the Times. “I'm somewhat pessimistic on tax reform because the clock is ticking," the source said, adding that while the lion's share of blame is on "selfish, entitled" Senate Republicans, Trump hasn't done himself any favors by openly feuding with Corker. "I don’t know why the president felt the need to poke him at this juncture, it’s going to be a tightrope to get this done. The optics have to look like we can get something through legislatively, eventually."
Another source close to the administration said that Trump’s Twitter war with Corker is not “the way to influence or make friends.” But the president doesn’t want Republicans to take him for granted, the source said, adding that has become more evident in his recent willingness to chat with Democratic leaders.
White House aides, the source said, are getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of any legislative accomplishments in Trump’s first year, but are trying to focus their energies and faint optimism on tax reform. Republicans unveiled a framework for tax reform last month, and while there is agreement on broad principles, the details will be tricky to hammer out. Corker, for example, along with other GOP lawmakers, has already raised concerns about the proposed overhaul adding to the deficit. And Trump targeting the Tennessee senator on Twitter won’t help in getting him on board.
But top administration officials are working to push Trump’s vision. In recent weeks, officials have been assuring major Republican donors that tax reform will be easier than the health care debacle, as money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee dries up. “Hope springs eternal,” said one such donor who has been briefed by White House aides. “The pressure on lawmakers to pass something is huge.”
Jack Kingston, a former congressman and Trump surrogate on CNN, said lawmakers should compartmentalize any attacks on them from the president and not see criticism as an indictment of the U.S. Senate itself. He did, though, acknowledge that the administration is upset with congressional Republicans.
“There is general White House frustration with a body that said for seven years it would repeal Obamacare and hasn’t done it, and general frustration that with a very rare opportunity — maybe once in a decade, where you control the House, Senate and White House — our own party is involved in a circular firing squad,” Kingston said.
The firing squad only stands to get more intense once midterms get closer, and Trump and his allies have the opportunity to primary disfavored Republican incumbents, like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. A national GOP strategist said the president’s feud with Congress hasn’t had as much of an impact yet on specific races, but if it continues to translate to lack of legislative accomplishments, it will. “To me this is all part of the Trump show and less to do with what’s going to happen with these campaigns on the ground,” the strategist said.
“It sucks right now. They need to get something done.”
For now, that something may just be relegated to stunts, like Vice President Mike Pence’s ordered exit from this weekend’s Indianapolis Colts game. While some Trump supporters roll their eyes at the president’s belittling of Corker, they said they had no problem with his war with the NFL, which has conflated players kneeling over racial inequality in America with being anti-American and anti-military, and they don’t feel the focus on the fight takes away from his legislative agenda.
“That’s actually picking the right type of enemy,” said a source close to the administration, calling NFL players “smug, entitled millionaires,” before noting that would fit for any professional athletes in any major sports league.
“It’s an important fight when you have boots on the ground in hostile places, troops getting killed, and these millionaires are taking a knee,” Kingston said.
But Democrats say the battle over players kneeling in the NFL is a distraction from the fact that Republicans run every chamber of government and can’t get anything done legislatively.
“The NFL fight is popular with part of Trump’s base, but as we get closer to the 2018 elections Republicans are going to have to answer for their inability to deliver for their constituents,” said Symone Sanders, a strategist for Priorities USA and CNN commentator. “What the Trump White House is orchestrating and concocting with Trump tweets, Pence at the game, Melania’s fight with Trump’s ex, and the NFL, none of these things make life better for the American people.”
Henry J. Gomez contributed reporting.